Halal pharmaceuticals, or medicines produced according to Islamic dietary laws, presented a global market worth some USD 100 billion in 2019, yet much of halal pharmaceuticals’ potential remains untapped. In conversation with PharmaBoardroom, Mazen M. Hassanain, co-founder and managing director of SaudiVax, a pioneer in halal vaccines, discusses the development of the market.


A Budding Sector

Halal pharmaceuticals are medicines that comply with Islamic law and that do not contain ingredients such as alcohol, pork, or other animal-derived substances. Despite the fact that Halal principles govern the lifestyle choices of some 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide, halal pharmaceuticals have yet to become a far-reaching phenomenon. According to a report from The Economist, this is perhaps due to a lack of harmonised halal accreditation processes, and unlike with halal foodstuffs, a lack of awareness among consumers.

Mazen M. Hassanain


Increased attention to halal products has created a strong market demand and reinforced our dedication to halal vaccine development

Mazen M. Hassanain, SaudiVax


Malaysia, a Muslim majority nation, pioneered the development of halal requirements in drug production and the Malaysian government brought the world’s first halal standard for pharmaceuticals forward. The country’s Duopharma Biotech Berhad produced the first prescription medicines to be certified as halal in 2017.

Since then, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have looked to follow suit with national bodies creating standards for halal products. Saudi Arabia specifically has set out to build its domestic halal industries as a part of its Vision 2030 initiatives. “Over the past few years, we have seen significant developments in the halal market, particularly with the Saudi government’s emphasis on halal and the establishment of private equity firms investing in halal products,” says Mazen M. Hassanain. “This increased attention to halal products has created a strong market demand and reinforced our dedication to halal vaccine development.”


High Quality without Animal Derivatives

The goal is not about religion; it is about increasing quality to make sure that biological products coming out of Saudi Arabia enjoy the same quality as those from North America and Europe

Co-founded in 2016 by Hassanain and his brother along with Dr Donald Gerson and his son, Jonas Elliott Gerson, SaudiVax set out to make halal vaccines available for the entire MENA region, but for its co-founder the concept goes beyond religion. “There is a global trend away from using any animal by-products in bioprocessing, and we are working to ensure that none of the components have any animal derivatives at all,” he said in a 2021 interview. “The goal is not about religion; it is about increasing quality to make sure that biological products coming out of Saudi Arabia enjoy the same quality as those from North America and Europe.”

SaudiVax has maintained its principal objective, expanding its focus beyond vaccines to include biologics and cover the growing demand for vegan or products free of animal derivatives. “Our aim is not only to cater to halal requirements but also to appeal to consumers who prioritize animal-free products, such as those following vegan diets. This move towards animal-free production aligns with broader market trends and preferences,” Hassanain affirms.


Rigorous Requirements

In order to produce halal products, companies must be certified according to a series of strict provisions. “Delving into this field requires meticulous attention to detail, particularly regarding halal certification,” says the SaudiVax managing director. “Ensuring that every aspect of the product, from cell growth to container materials, adheres to halal standards is essential.”

Developing halal products is a time-intensive and resource-intensive endeavour, he admits, and for this reason, SaudiVax has also diversified its activities in recent years. “To balance our focus on halal products with the need for revenue generation, we established a new department dedicated to marketing, sales, distribution, and manufacturing. This diversification strategy allows us to generate cash flow while continuing to pursue our long-term goals in the halal product space.”

Regulatory conditions for novel vaccines and biologics are also strict, says Hassanain, yet SaudiVax, in the preclinical phase of vaccine and biologics development, has stuck to its course. “The company remains committed to advancing its halal vaccine and biologics development efforts,” he maintains.


Beyond MENA

While Saudi’s efforts to promote halal development and initiatives such as the Dubai-based International Halal Accreditation Forum (IHAF), aimed at harmonising halal accreditation practices among members, have made the GCC and larger MENA region a logical main focus area for SaudiVax, the company is also looking further afield. “Collaborations with institutions like the National University of Medical Sciences (NUMS) in Pakistan and the Islamic Development Bank have highlighted the substantial demand for halal vaccines in Muslim-majority countries beyond the GCC region,” Hassanain affirms.

However, access and affordability are significant concerns in many of these countries. “To address these challenges, we are focused on ensuring halal certification but also on making the product affordable. This dual objective adds some additional complexity to the development process since achieving affordability requires high operational efficiency and scalability.”

Hassanain remains confident about SaudiVax’s future outlook. “We are optimistic about the market potential for halal vaccines and are actively seeking partnerships both in the East and the West.”