The UAE's doing what it takes to be the centre for life sciences

Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 has identified the industry as one of the main sub-sectors to develop

A lab technician testing medicines at the Abu Dhabi Quality and Conformity Centre’s central lab. Ruel Pableo for The National
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Over the past 52 years, the UAE has transformed from a nation primarily focused on oil and energy into a place of innovation. The UAE’s heritage of oil and energy has laid a solid foundation for this.

As the country looks towards a future shaped by economic diversification, life sciences will play a significant role. Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 has identified the industry as one of the main sub-sectors to develop. Underpinned by government-led efforts, it has grown rapidly over the past 10 years. Life sciences encompass a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, including biology, biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, ecology and other related areas.

The allocation of 7.6 per cent of the UAE’s Federal General Budget for 2023-2026 to the Ministry of Health and Prevention, illustrates the commitment from the government. A flourishing private sector drives those efforts home, which draws foreign direct investment, talent and expertise. Public-private partnerships further solidify the UAE’s reputation for delivering high-quality, patient-centric health care.

The UAE has higher per capita healthcare spending than many other nations, making it well-positioned to invest in its life sciences sector

There is a concentrated drive to position the UAE as a global destination for medical tourism, which Abu Dhabi achieved when ranked among the top 10 cities in the 2021 Medical Tourism Index. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Department of Health joined forces in May last year to further enhance this service. Specialised medical tourism programmes will be created while co-ordinating with all our public and private partners across the healthcare ecosystem.

The UAE's strategic location is a gateway to the Mena region where innovation can flourish. In 2022, there was a 40 per cent increase in incubated start-ups due to an attractive business environment, and the UAE welcomed 86 new companies. Some among these are ShopDoc, the region's first medical tourism-focused digital healthcare platform; Valeo Health, the consumer-first healthcare provider; and Pharmlator, the mobile app, which helps solve training problems for pharmacy students and faculties.

Life sciences organisations also have access to essential infrastructure, such as warehousing and cold storage, a dedicated pharmaceutical air hub, and partnership and investment opportunities. They also have access to Abu Dhabi’s digital health platform, vast datasets, 16 research universities and more than 72 authorised facilities to conduct human subject research.

Abu Dhabi’s Kizad Life Sciences Park, which holds a complete pharmaceutical value chain in one place, exemplifies what investment can achieve. It will be home to the first Goods Manufacturing Practice (GMP) biopharma facility in the UAE, marking the first of its kind in the region to manufacture essential life sciences products for advanced biologics.

At the same time, The Emirati Genome Programme is now the most extensive programme of its kind in the world, having collected and sequenced over 430,000 genome samples.

Researchers can uncover new pathways associated with complex diseases by analysing genetic information, including the characterisation of novel genetic phenotypes and identifying responsible genes. This process can lead to the assessment of adverse drug effects and the identification of populations for which a drug would be most effective. This will have a significant impact considering more than 200 nationalities live and work in the UAE.

At the same time, in 2022 alone, there was a 484 per cent increase in clinical trials conducted here in sectors ranging from fertility, neurology, haematology, oncology, cardiology, ophthalmology, gastroenterology, paediatrics, type-2 diabetes and Covid-19. Examining the genetic code of Covid-19 has led the UAE to play a vital part in a worldwide initiative to understand the virus better and create lifesaving treatments.

That increase in clinical trials is partly due to the process from the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, which enables trials to be approved in just 28 days, providing researchers and entrepreneurs with an advantage. Given that globally it can sometimes take over a year to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the US or the European Medicines Agency in the EU, this accelerated support enables therapies to reach the market faster.

Mubadala Investment Company has been mandated to build a national champion in the life sciences sector. However, it is essential to remember that the benefits of this strategy extend beyond just the economic impact. The people of the UAE and the entire region will benefit.

The growing proportion of elderly residents, projected to constitute 29 per cent of the country's population by 2050, underscores the imperative for a resilient supply of medicines in the UAE. Since 2018, the UAE has implemented policies supporting the substitution of generic drugs, with a collection of over 6,000 generic medications priced around 60 per cent lower than their branded equivalents. Currently, there are over 2,500 types of locally produced medicines available.

In a post-pandemic world, health care and life sciences have assumed an unparalleled significance. The lessons learnt from the Covid-19 crisis emphasises the need for self-reliance in medical innovation, focusing on improving healthcare infrastructure and minimising reliance on imported pharmaceuticals. The Middle East still imports as much as 80 per cent of its drugs, and the UAE is estimated to have imported around Dh14.9 billion of pharmaceutical products in 2018 alone.

The country has higher per capita healthcare spending than many other nations, making it well-positioned to invest in its life sciences sector. From research and development to manufacturing, the UAE is nurturing an end-to-end industry and initiating a domino effect that will positively affect the nation’s GDP, increase the number of jobs, enable higher exports, foster greater innovation and technological advancements, and improve medical self-reliance.

The UAE has already done so much, but the journey continues as the nation transforms into a global powerhouse for life sciences innovation that can benefit the country and potentially change the world.

Published: February 01, 2024, 2:30 PM