Novartis sees Saudi Arabia as promising market for producing its cancer drugs

Novartis is exploring local production of some of its cancer drugs in Saudi Arabia. (David Mark Pixabay)

Novartis may be struggling a bit in the U.S. with cancer drug launches, but it has a new market it can now explore: Saudi Arabia.

The Swiss drugmaker has signed off on a memorandum of understanding with Sudair Pharma for a technology transfer that would allow the Saudi Arabian company to produce a number of “innovative” cancer drugs in the kingdom, the Arab News reports.

Officials told the publication that Novartis had decided to produce its oncology drugs in Saudi Arabia, a country that reports cancer rates above world averages.

It will find plenty of competition from other Western drugmakers that got there first. Pfizer two years ago opened a $50 million, 11,108 -square-meter (119,565-square-foot) manufacturing and packaging facility in the kingdom. It was slated to produce cardiovascular, pain, anti-infective, urology and neurology products.

Also in 2017, a joint venture between the United Arab Emirates-based Julphar Gulf Pharmaceutical Industries and Cigalah Group, a Saudi healthcare distributor, opened a $53 million, 75,000-square-meter (807,292-square-foot) facility in the country to make generic drugs.

Officials in Saudi Arabia pointed to Novartis’ history of developing cancer drugs, but the pharma giant has struggled a bit in the oncology area of late. Kisqali, a breast cancer treatment approved in 2017, has struggled to gain traction against Pfizer blockbuster Ibrance and newer rival Verzenio from Eli Lilly. And Kymriah, the company’s pioneering CAR-T drug, has run into manufacturing challenges that have slowed expansion.

But there has been one notable exception: Lutathera, approved early last year to treat somatostatin receptor-positive gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, has done quite well.

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