ALI AL WATBAN

Saudi Arabia 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ali Al Watban, General Manager of Roche Diagnostics Saudi Arabia, on the country's reform agenda, working with the Health Ministry to fight COVID-19, and the firm's market position.

Health has been at the centre of Saudi Arabia's reform agenda for the past five years. How has Roche Diagnostics Saudi Arabia played a role in this process?

Roche Diagnostics Saudi Arabia is a strong partner of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health and the public sector. We have worked hand in hand with the Saudi healthcare sector and supported in many different areas. Roche works in Saudi under three pillars—quality, innovation, and development. We have always been keen to deliver only quality products with either or both CE marks/FDA approval. We provide state-of-the-art technology and offer total lab automation (TLA) - a unique setup that relieves laboratory staff of repetitive tasks, enabling hospitals and clinics to better utilize their employees' time. Roche has worked hard in terms of development in line with the Saudisation plan as we successfully reached around 26% Saudisation at Roche, with this workforce proving itself to be effective and efficient. We have Saudi personnel in various departments and roles including engineers and application specialists. We also strive to achieve women's inclusion and empowerment in the workforce - which is one of my specific goals leading the Saudi organization - and considered a foundation of our diverse culture at Roche. With people being our most valuable resource, we are keen to develop both our employees and our partners to ultimately serve patients.

In 2018, Roche obtained a SAGIA license for a joint venture with your distributor in Saudi. What were the specifics of that deal and the reasoning behind it?

We are focused on implementing Vision 2030 and targeting all medical companies that operate in Saudi Arabia. In November 2018, we went direct in the country with our operations. This means we have immediate access to patients and decision-makers through our joint venture partner, Farouk, Maamoun Tamer & Co. We have also invested directly in our healthcare division. This will reflect positively on our human resources, as we will be able to attract new talent by having an on-the-ground presence in Saudi Arabia. Having a direct presence here also allows us to make better investment decisions in terms of our diagnostics products.

How has Roche participated in Saudi's COVID-19 response efforts through its diagnostic products?

At the outset, everything was unchartered territory, but Roche was quick to adapt to a new way of working. For example, we were one of the first companies in Saudi Arabia to stop face-to-face meetings and have our staff work from home. We have over 400 regional employees and were extremely proactive in giving them regular updates regarding COVID-19. The health and wellbeing of our employees is paramount to us. This is why we have a safety, health, and environment (SHE) team at Roche, which has been dynamic and timely with its input during COVID-19. We were well prepared with masks, gloves, and PPEs from the onset of the pandemic and implementing procedures for the wellbeing and safety of our team. Roche was also one of the first companies to deliver diagnostic kits for the government during the outbreak on time without any real delays, as we have a strong instrument base in the country. Roche has a state-of-the-art testing solutions—the cobas® 6800—its leading diagnostic technology placing it in high demand at this critical time.

How has the company worked closely with the Ministry of Health on the pandemic?

We have undertaken numerous projects in Saudi Arabia. Roche has established several referral centers for COVID-19 testing. We are also one of the companies that has direct access to high-level governmental decision-makers. We have established a strong relationship with them and hold their trust because when we promise, we perform. We are the only provider of a diagnostic test that can detect both COVID-19 and SARS/Influenza A and B using our cobas® 6800 technology. We value delivering on our commitment of providing fast and accurate testing at the highest level over and above any financial considerations. We continue to deliver with our solutions and enjoy a strong partnership with the Ministry of Health and other key stakeholders across the Kingdom.

What is unique about Roche's cobas® 6800 screening technology?

Since 2014, the cobas® 6800 - and similarly for the cobas® 8800 - Systems have established the new standard for routine molecular testing by delivering fully integrated, automated solutions providing up to 96 results in about 3 hours and a total of 1,440 results of donor screening, infectious disease, sexual health, transplant, respiratory, and antimicrobial stewardship. Based on Nobel prize-winning PCR technology, the systems deliver proven performance with full automation, increased throughput, fast turnaround time and complete track connectivity validated for molecular testing, providing users with greater flexibility to consolidate their IVD and Lab Developed Testing to a single system while increasing overall workflow efficiencies.

How has the pandemic changed Roche's market position?

As you can imagine, the pandemic has affected everyone. At Roche, we understand the enormous global demand for novel coronavirus tests. In response to the ongoing public health crisis, Roche is making substantial investments in building additional manufacturing capacity to increase production of tests and the instruments on which they are performed. This effort will draw on the strength of our global network across multiple sites and involve multiple functions of our organization. Roche will continue to increase the production of our molecular tests through capacity expansion of new and existing lines. We will also significantly increase the number of cobas® 6800/8800 Systems placed worldwide to increase testing capacity. In a pandemic such as this, we stand with the government as a partner out of our concern for the community we serve – which further strengthen our relationships with key stakeholders and demonstrates how effective public-private partnerships can be established. Our singular focus is on producing as many tests as possible to support our customers, communities and patients in responding to this unprecedented public health crisis.