RIYADH: Pfizer is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and has been operating in Saudi Arabia for six decades, but many people in the Kingdom will have come to know the brand only as a result of its work developing a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.
Patrick van der Loo, regional president for Africa and the Middle East, has worked at the company for 20 years and, in December, was appointed to lead the distribution of the vaccine across a challenging and wide-ranging group of countries.
“Saudi Arabia and the GCC kicked off their COVID-19 vaccination drive with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in December as some of the first countries globally to do so. The allocation of doses and implementation plan within a country is a decision for local governments based on relevant health authority guidance,” he told Arab News.
“Pfizer and BioNTech are working relentlessly to supply the world with 2 billion BNT162b2 vaccine doses by the end of 2021. Our Belgium facility’s upscaling work included process improvements to our manufacturing lines, expanding our manufacturing facility with a new production unit, and increasing batch sizes to optimize efficiency,” he added.
Operating in the region for 60 years and with a workforce of 460 employees, Pfizer has a long partnership with the Kingdom. In October 2011, it signed an agreement with the-then Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) — now called Ministry of Investment — to set up its first-ever manufacturing plant in the GCC in King Abdullah Economic City.
In 2016, SAGIA issued a “trading license” to Pfizer, the first multinational pharmaceutical company awarded such a permit. The license gave Pfizer “100 percent foreign ownership” of its legal entity in Saudi Arabia, with the ability to import, export and trade in wholesale and retail products, equipment and instruments, he said.
Construction of the new manufacturing and packaging facility was completed in 2017 and Pfizer is planning to expand further in coming years, as the Kingdom moves closer to realizing its Vision 2030 goals to diversify away from hydrocarbons and increase local production.
“Pfizer is an active player in Saudi Arabia, and is in a continuous dialogue with multiple authorities to explore new opportunities, including investments, to support its vision and objectives,” van der Loo said.
Arriving in the region at a critical time, van der Loo said he is relishing the challenge ahead.
“While this region is new to me, I will gladly welcome new challenges and devote my energy to finding solutions focused on patient outcomes. Working in the region is also offering me the opportunity to get involved in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine distribution across a wide range of countries, and it is gratifying to be part of something of this scale,” he said.
According to Reuters, Pfizer is aiming to produce 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines this year, earnings it around $15 billion, or about a quarter of its sales.
While COVID-19 may be his immediate priority, van der Loo is also leading the transformation of Pfizer’s wider portfolio of products across Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East region.
“Pfizer is shifting from a diversified company with a consumer health portfolio and comprehensive portfolio of legacy brands to a more science-focused biopharmaceutical powerhouse. In KSA and the Gulf, we aim to ensure the early introduction of breakthroughs — sometimes some of the earliest in the world, which truly demonstrates the innovative eagerness of specific markets in the Middle East,” he said.
There are currently multiple clinical trial protocols — phase two and three — under review, and some have reached the final stages of development and approval in oncology, vaccine, public health and gene therapy.
“We are also very proud of our collaboration with multiple Saudi research centers to access clinical trials and innovative treatments in the medical field. The trial of gene therapy in Duchenne’s disease at King Faisal Specialty Hospital and Research Center is a milestone,” he said.
Pfizer is also providing training and development opportunities for multiple Saudi entities operating in the healthcare, training and education sectors, as part of the National Transformation Program.
Looking ahead to 2021, van der Loo said Pfizer will have “several product launches in oncology, among other areas, to reach new patients with critical breakthrough treatments and prevention tools.”