Q&A with Malaysia’s Duopharma Biotech: Making a Breakthrough in Halal Pharmaceuticals | Salaam Footbridge
Salaam Gateway interviewed Wan Amir-Jeffery Bin Wan Abdul Majid, Chief Operating Officer/Commercial Director at Duopharma Biotech Berhad in Malaysia, about recent developments in the halal pharmaceutical 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 Classic Ethical Sales to Government Enterprises. He was appointed Deputy CEO in 2018 with additional responsibilities in traditional ethical private sales and corporate communication. In 2020, Jeffery was named chief commercial officer when he took charge of ethical and specialty businesses. In 2021, he will also take over the commercial function of the international business department, in charge of the group’s commercial affairs.
Salaam Gateway (SG): How were Duopharma Biotech’s halal sales in 2021?
Wan Jeffery: All products produced in our three Malaysian factories are Halal certified. Removing marketed products from the equation, revenues were approximately RM600 million ($150 million), of which approximately $100-110 million came from our halal-certified factories. We certainly have growth opportunities in this particular part in 2022.
SG: How have the sales of halal nutraceuticals/vitamins/health supplements been over the past year? Did they decline due to the easing of COVID-19 or did sales continue?
Wan Jeffery: We did well during COVID-19, after the first quarter (of 2020) and in 2021. Consumer healthcare products offset prescription drug sales which declined due to discontinued products or not taking by the market, as the focus was on fighting the virus.
Consumer healthcare did well because people were boosting their immunity. It was at the height of the pandemic, but now the demand is for paracetamol or cough syrup, as many are 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 meeting targets, but not as strong as in 2021 and 2020.
SG: So ordinary health issues are back?
Wan Jeffery: We’re seeing the adoption of never-before-seen products in 2020 and 2021, so there’s a certain normalcy, especially from public hospitals. People are going out more and getting treatment for illnesses other than COVID-19. Anti-infectives are seeing higher adoption than in the past 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 actors and stakeholders, but it is not a priority for us or for the Ministry of Health. The focus is on other vaccines like meningitis and influenza. We are also working on a few others for dengue fever and foot and mouth disease. The problem with a COVID-19 vaccine is to develop one that covers all potential variants; something that big pharma is working on.
SG: What is your outlook for halal pharmaceuticals this year?
Wan Jeffery: The question is how to ensure increased awareness? This is the recurring theme that we emphasize year after year when it comes to halal pharma. As an industry player, we can do our part, but there’s not much we can do. We want to see more aggressive halal pharma awareness sessions and government-led ecosystem development programs – not “What is halal pharma?”.
The government has supported halal pharma, but more can be done. The focus should be on growing the ecosystem and the government should support programs, be it awareness, development, market access or procurement policies that support halal pharmaceuticals , because 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 buys 60-65% of the total pharmaceuticals in Malaysia in terms of value. You can easily make purchases focused on halal pharmaceuticals. A government policy gives more points to tenders for halal-certified products, but we still do not consider it robust enough to ensure priority for halal pharmaceuticals in terms of procurement.
It is essential to have government support and commitment beyond halal food and drink. Last year, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry identified pharmaceuticals as a national investment aspiration. They intend to place industries in different baskets according to priorities in order to give due attention to development in Malaysia; a growth driver for the next 10 years. In this case, we can look at how local industry can play an important role in terms of supplying products to government and the private sector, but mainly to ensure self-sufficiency and security around key pharmaceuticals that are increasingly likely to be manufactured.
SG: So a focus on domestic manufacturing?
Wan Jeffery: If the focus is national first, the rest will follow. By having consumer awareness, over-the-counter products and halal pharmaceuticals mentioned in the same breath as the brands we spend more on in terms of advertisements and promotions, acceptance of halal pharmaceuticals will no longer be an issue. , but a standard. Eventually, there would be spillover onto 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 other big 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 to work with agencies, including JAKIM and the Halal Development Corporation (HDC).
JAKIM is the guardian of the certification process, but HDC develops the ecosystem and I believe both share the same aspirations. We engage with both parties and, as a business entity, bring innovative technologies, products and solutions to ensure that we also cooperate on the requirements of the halal pharmaceutical industry, be it vaccines in development or biosimilars.
SG: Do you have any new halal-certified products coming out?
Wan Jeffery: What I can share is our efforts to achieve Halal Malaysia certification for our biosimilar erythropoietin under the ERYSAA® brand. Last year, we undertook a painstaking process to determine the halal status of the Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell line used in the production of the biosimilar. We commissioned the University of Islamic Sciences Malaysia (USIM) to conduct the study and they brought together a group of scientists, Shariah experts and pharmacists to look at the production process from the primary cell line . I think this will be a landmark study as it is the first locally filled and finished biosimilar to apply for halal certification.
We are still reviewing the report. The next process will be for JAKIM and the National Fatwa Council to look at the concept as we are talking about using a hamster cell line as a host to develop a therapeutic protein. They have never had to deal with such questions in the pharmaceutical context and will have to think about them carefully. This will be the first biological cell line to undergo pharmaceutical review.
SG: What should JAKIM take into account?
Wan Jeffery: This is the first time that JAKIM has looked into the halal interpretation of biological products, including vaccines. Regarding vaccines and biosimilars, this concept will take years because the status of some cell lines is unclear and we need to study and deliberate from a scientific and Sharia point of view.
SG: Do you hope it will be done this year?
Wan Jeffery: Yes, but for ERYSAA®, we know the process from master cell start-up to production. It’s case by case and for others, there will be other interpretations. JAKIM has proposed a resolution to potentially apply the concept of istihalah, but needs to verify its parameters based on Shariah and scientific evidence before it can be adopted as halal. We hope there will be a positive outcome.
SG: Last time we spoke, you mentioned entering the Bangladeshi market. Is this still the case ?
Wan Jeffery: At the time, we were exploring opportunities with Bangladesh. However, their pharmaceutical industry is, to a certain extent, more advanced than Malaysia’s for generics because the government wanted to support the local generic industry so that it does not buy anything that local manufacturers cannot produce.
When we talk about collaboration, it’s about understanding policies and decisions. Bangladesh is more competitive in terms of scale, so there are no real opportunities there with the pharmaceuticals it currently has.
SG: Is there potential for a joint venture?
Wan Jeffery: It’s not something we explored. In the future, I don’t think that Bangladesh will still be a member of the Convention on Pharmaceutical Inspection and the Cooperation Scheme in Pharmaceutical Inspection (PIC/S) and that would be a prerequisite before entering into an agreement business with a technology provider.
SG: What do you mean by providers?
Wan Jeffery: The technology of the finished products, that is, they have the formulations, and for specific products, it can be interesting for us in the international markets.
SG: Is Duopharma planning to expand halal pharmaceuticals to 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 Pharmacy in a Malaysian context, including MS2424 (Malaysian Standard for Halal Pharmaceuticals); shared some of our halal certified products and highlighted our aspirations.
It’s a long way to create awareness and convert it into trade policy and sourcing decisions, especially in the south (of the Philippines), if not other parts of the country. We are now creating groups of international partners to create this awareness, starting with Muslim-dominated markets large enough to potentially have the momentum to move commercially.
We are also moving into smaller markets, such as the Maldives, outside of ASEAN. We want to enter more obvious halal-ready markets like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, not just to sell products, but to raise awareness of halal pharmaceuticals.
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