Salaam Gateway interviewed Wan Amir-Jeffery Bin Wan Abdul Majid, Chief Operating Officer/Chief Commercial Officer at Duopharma Biotech Berhad in Malaysia, about recent developments in the halal pharmaceuticals sector and the company’s plans.
Wan Jeffery joined Duopharma Biotech Berhad as Chief Strategy Officer in 2016, responsible for business development, halal initiatives and government relations and ethical classic government business sales. He was appointed Chief Operating Officer in 2018 with additional responsibilities in ethical classic private sales and corporate communication. In 2020 Jeffery was appointed Chief Commercial Officer when he took on board the ethical and specialty business. In 2021 he also took up the international business department commercial role, handling the group’s commercial business.
Salaam Gateway (SG): How were Duopharma Biotech’s halal sales in 2021?
Wan Jeffery: All products manufactured in our three Malaysian plants are halal certified. Removing the traded products from the equation, revenue was about RM 600 million ($150 million) with about $100-$110 million coming from our halal-certified plants. We definitely have growth opportunities in that particular portion in 2022.
SG: How have sales of halal nutraceuticals/vitamins/health supplements been over the past year? Have they declined due to COVID-19 easing or have sales kept going?
Wan Jeffery: We did well during COVID-19, post the first quarter (of 2020) and in 2021. Consumer healthcare products offset prescription drugs sales that reduced due to discontinued products or not being taken up by the market as the focus was on addressing the virus.
Consumer healthcare did well because people were boosting their immunity. That was at the height of the pandemic, but now demand is for paracetamol or cough syrup, as many are getting affected due to the highly infectious, but less symptomatic Omicron virus.
People are concerned about managing any potential symptoms by taking these products to reduce symptoms. Overall, our consumer healthcare sales are strong and achieving targets, but not as strong as in 2021 and 2020.
SG: So ordinary health problems are back?
Wan Jeffery: We are seeing the take-up of products not seen in 2020 and 2021, so there is some normality, especially from government hospitals. People are going out more and getting treatments for illnesses other than COVID-19. Anti-infectives are seeing a higher uptake than in the last two years.
SG: Any news on a halal-certified COVID-19 vaccine?
Wan Jeffery: Not yet for Duopharma Biotech. Work is being done by local players and stakeholders, but it is not a priority for either us or the Ministry of Health. There is a focus on other vaccines like meningitis and flu. We are also working on a few others for dengue and foot and mouth disease. The issue with a COVID-19 vaccine is developing one that covers all potential variants; something on which big pharma is working.
SG: What’s your outlook for halal pharmaceuticals this year?
Wan Jeffery: The question is how do we ensure increased awareness? That is the recurring theme we highlight year-in year-out as far as halal pharma is concerned. As an industry player, we can do our part, but there’s also only so much we can do. We want to see more aggressive halal pharma awareness sessions and ecosystem development programmes carried out by the government – and not on “What is halal pharma?”.
The government has supported halal pharma, but more can be done. The focus should be on enabling the ecosystem to grow and government should support programmes, whether awareness, development, market access or procurement policies that support halal pharma products as we have halal-certified products.
SG: So the Malaysian government should be a key driver?
Wan Jeffery: If you look at different market segments, the government purchases 60-65% of total pharmaceutical products in Malaysia value-wise. You can easily make that halal pharma focused procurement-wise. One government policy gives more points to tender submissions for halal-certified products, but we still do not consider it sufficiently robust to ensure halal pharmaceuticals are given priority in terms of purchasing.
It is critical to have government support and commitment beyond just halal food and beverage. Last year the Ministry of International Trade and Industry identified pharmaceuticals as a national investment aspiration. They mean to put industries into different baskets priority-wise to give due attention to development in Malaysia; a growth driver for the next 10 years. In that case we can look at how the local industry can play a big role in terms of providing products to government and the private sector, but mainly to ensure there is self-sufficiency and security around key pharma products increasingly at risk to be manufactured.
SG: So a focus on domestic manufacturing?
Wan Jeffery: If the focus is domestic first, the rest will follow. By having consumer awareness, over-the-counter products and halal pharma mentioned in the same breath as the brands on which we are spending more in terms of ads and promotions, acceptance of halal pharmaceuticals will no longer be a question, but a norm. Eventually, there would be a spill-over into regional and then international markets.
SG: What are your plans for Duopharma Biotech this year?
Wan Jeffery: Halal is obviously a key initiative for us and the other larger players in Malaysia. We have a few pillars in our seven-year strategy and halal is one of the main ones. We will also continue working with the agencies including JAKIM and the Halal Development Corporation (HDC).
JAKIM is the custodian of the certification process, but HDC develops the ecosystem and I believe the two share the same aspirations. We engage with both parties and, as a commercial entity, bring in innovative technology, products and solutions to ensure we also co-operate on requirements for halal pharma, whether for vaccines in the pipeline or biosimilars.
SG: Do you have new halal-certified products coming out?
Wan Jeffery: What I can share is our effort to obtain Halal Malaysia certification for our biosimilar Erythropoietin under the brand ERYSAA®. Last year we underwent a tedious process of determining the halal status of Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell line used in producing the biosimilar. We commissioned the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) to conduct the study and they pulled together a group of scientists, Sharia experts and pharmacists to review the production process from the primary cell line onwards. I think it will be a landmark study because it was the first locally filled and finished biosimilar to have applied for halal certification.
We are still reviewing the report. The next process will be for JAKIM and the National Fatwa Council to consider the concept as we are talking about using a hamster’s cell line as the host to develop therapeutic protein. They have never had to deal with such questions in the pharmaceutical context and will need to think carefully about it. It will be the first biologics cell line under the pharmaceutical review.
SG: What does JAKIM need to consider?
Wan Jeffery: It is the first time JAKIM is looking into the halal interpretation of biologics including vaccines. When it comes to vaccines and biosimilars, that concept will take years as the status of certain cell lines is not clear and we must study and deliberate from a science and Sharia perspective.
SG: Are you hoping this will be done this year?
Wan Jeffery: Yes, but for ERYSAA® we know the process from starting the master cell to production. It is on a case-by-case basis and for others, there will be other interpretations. JAKIM has come up with a resolution to potentially apply the istihalah concept, but needs to ascertain its parameters based on Sharia and scientific evidence before it can be adopted as halal. We hope there will be a positive outcome.
SG: The last time we talked, you mentioned entering the Bangladeshi market. Is this still on?
Wan Jeffery: At that time we were exploring opportunities with Bangladesh. However, their pharma industry is, to a certain extent, more advanced than Malaysia’s for generics as the government wanted to support the local generics industry such that they do not procure anything local manufacturers can’t produce.
When we talk about collaboration, it is about understanding policies and decisions. Bangladesh is more competitive in terms of scale, so there are no real opportunities there with the pharma products they currently have.
SG: Is there potential for a joint venture?
Wan Jeffery: It’s not something we have explored. Moving forward, I don’t think Bangladesh is a Pharmaceutical Inspection Convention and Pharmaceutical Inspection Co-operation Scheme (PIC/S) member yet and that would be a pre-requisite before we entered a business arrangement with any technological provider.
SG: What do you mean by providers?
Wan Jeffery: Finished products technology, meaning they have the formulations, and for specific products it may be interesting for us in international markets.
SG: Does Duopharma have plans to expand halal pharmaceuticals into other markets?
Wan Jeffery: We are exploring international collaborations, starting with two conferences with a group of Muslim doctors in the Philippines; the best place to start for obvious reasons. The first conference created awareness around halal pharma from a Malaysian context including MS2424 (Malaysian Standard on halal pharmaceuticals); shared some of our halal-certified products and highlighted our aspirations.
It is a long road to creating awareness and converting that into commercial and procurement policy decisions, particularly in the south (of the Philippines), if not other parts of the country. We are now creating clusters of international partners to create that awareness, starting in predominantly Muslim markets large enough to potentially have the momentum to move commercially.
We are also moving into smaller markets, like the Maldives, outside of ASEAN. We want to move into more obvious halal-ready markets like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, not just to sell products, but to achieve awareness of halal pharmaceuticals.
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