HISHAM BIN SAAD ALJADHEY

Saudi Arabia 2021 | HEALTH | VIP INTERVIEW

SFDA deals with food, medicine, and medical devices, all of which are essential during COVID-19, and it was able to ensure its success with the proper planning and teamwork. Here, TBY talks to Hisham bin Saad Aljadhey, CEO of Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA).

SFDA has been at the center of the government's efforts to counter the pandemic. What was your early and medium-term response to ensure the organization had the capacity to deal with the crisis?

Three of the main areas that we deal with are food, drugs, and medical devices, and all these are essential in the crisis. We had significant pressure to protect the public, as well as a limitation as we were unable to expand our staff. We started immediately coordinating with the government, who initiated a first response committee at the end of January. It was extremely early and was headed by the Minister of Health. We immediately created teams and delegated some of the work to various staff members. I have a dedicated team just focusing on this crisis comprising staff from different departments. We had planned for how to deal with the situation, but many unexpected things happen during a crisis.

SFDA was responsible for issuing letters to allow key industry personnel to travel during the curfew. How was that process organized?

For the curfew, we were responsible for issuing the transportation permit. We were focused on ensuring that we did not hinder any manufacturing or supply chain of food, drugs, or medical devices. On the first day, we handed out more than 150,000 letters, which increased to almost 400,000 soon after. My team created a new website in less than 12 hours. Companies could just enter in its registration number allocated by the Ministry of Commerce and the name of the employee, and it could be printed immediately with the signature required. We created an internal committee to do auditing of all these issued letters or approval. It was not easy; sometimes in the middle of the night, I would receive a call saying a medication supply chain moving from one city to the other had been stopped by the police, and I had to intervene to sort it out immediately. I was also careful, having my team work from home to protect them. Within a week, we moved our call center online and gave our entire staff the ability to access our files from home, which was a great deal of work for the IT department. Their safety would be reflected on the continuity of business.

How have the trends of increased government coordination and the facilitating effect of digitalization interacted at SFDA?

The inter-agency coordination has been unbelievable. There is no sign that one process is ministry X or Y; you do not know who works for each ministry, as we all work together. Some of the committees hosted in our office were a team effort from different ministries. That started from His Majesty the King and the Crown Prince who created committees that featured different governmental entities. Things that need to be organized or coordinated between ministries would usually take months, but have happened in a few days due to the current team spirit. In terms of technology, it has been amazing. We had a plan to inspect some institutions and manufacturers from distance for some time, but because of COVID-19, all of our teams had to do so. Instead of traveling 200km, they have a conference virtually so an assessment can be made. This has protected the health of our team, created efficiencies, and expedited the use of technology rapidly.

What have you learned in your position and the country at large in terms of managing a crisis on this scale?

The major thing we have learned from this is that with the proper planning and acting at the beginning with strong coordination with the government and the private sector, we have been able to cope with this crisis. The health outcome and the availability of products were the result of proper coordination, and SFDA used the crisis from a positive point of view to expedite some of its initiatives.