Saudi Arabia’s response to COVID-19 stands up well to international comparisons in both the MENA region and globally. In recent conversation with PharmaBoardroom, Fahad Al Shebel, CEO of national medicine procurement body NUPCO, outlines some of the fundamentals behind this success story.
Extreme, But Effective, Measures
Saudi Arabia took “extreme measures” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the WHO, “which contributed to limiting the spread and effect of the disease.”
After the announcement of the country’s first case, all schools, social events, sports activities, domestic travel and international flights were suspended. Restrictions on social movement, social and religious gatherings, travel, and businesses were imposed ahead of the first 100 confirmed cases and the 2020 Hajj pilgrimage was scaled down to limit participants. A governance system was put in place to continuously monitor the pandemic situation, trace contacts, screen the population, raise awareness, and take actions to contain the spread of the disease.
Saudi Arabia was able to maintain all basic health services and immunization programmes, approve and supply COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, and is now working to develop its capacity to produce these products internally, thereby achieving self-sufficiency.
The Kingdom’s pandemic response has already won international acclaim. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), Saudi Arabia ranked first worldwide in the response of entrepreneurs and government.
Overall, the country has seen total cases of 550,304 during the course of the pandemic, with 539,554 people recovering and 8,855 dying, as per Arab News. 66.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated today.
Cumulative deaths per million people in the country stood at 250.56 as of December 13th, 2021, around the same level as neighbouring UAE (215.29), far lower than regional hotspots such as Turkey (932.73) and Iran (1,537.88), and well behind the likes of the USA (2,399.14), Russia (1,952.61), and the UK (2,154.25), according to Our World in Data.
NUPCO’s Leading Role
As part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ economic transformation plan, the country has centralised the public procurement of medications through the National Unified Procurement Company for Medical Supplies (NUPCO). Naturally, NUPCO had a significant role to play during the pandemic, as CEO Fahad Al Shebel recently told PharmaBoardroom.
We were the fourth fastest country globally in terms of vaccine supply during this critical time
Fahad Al Shebal, NUPCO
“Thanks to the efforts made by the various departments of NUPCO, we were able to be at the forefront of the healthcare sector by supporting the initiatives of the Ministry of Health and other health authorities in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kingdom allocated special budgets, and trusted NUPCO to carry out procurement, storage, and distribution. We succeeded with the support of our local and foreign partners in securing the necessary medicines, medical equipment, and supplies in record time, in addition to awarding bids worth SAR 5.78 billion to procure 846 medical items through 158 suppliers across 37 countries. We still support the government agencies in procuring supplies.”
Al Shebal added, “At NUPCO, we are also proud to serve the country by managing to sign multiple deals with numbers of international factories to supply COVID-19 vaccines and were the fourth fastest country globally in terms of vaccine supply during this critical time.”
He highlighted five key reasons behind this successful response below:
Innovative logistics services to enhance community safety
“Given the advanced technologies we employ in our logistics department and the contributions of our highly competent technical staff of Saudi nationals, NUPCO was able to demonstrate a high degree of professionalism throughout our initiative to secure, store, and distribute infection control items among government health agencies. We also increased the number of infection control items to 32 and delivered over 453 million units to more than 50 government agencies since the launch of the initiative last February.”
Qualitative partnership with the Chinese giant BGI
“Thanks to the deal worth SR 995 million that NUPCO signed on behalf of the Kingdom with the global biotech giant BGI, we have succeeded in providing nine million tests to diagnose COVID-19, in addition to the related equipment and supplies as well as medical staff of 500 specialists and professional technicians. KSA also established four regional laboratories across various regions of the Kingdom, with operational capacities ranging from 40,000 to 50,000, besides a mobile laboratory with a capacity to conduct 10,000 daily tests and comprehensive field checks.
“The initiative included supply chain management for the government health sector, which provided the necessary supplies to enable BGI labs to carry out timely and accurate PCR tests to detect the Novel Coronavirus.”
Analyzing the genetic and immunity maps
“The agreement also included auditing laboratory tests to ensure their quality, as well as training Saudi staff, analyzing the genetic map of samples from within the Kingdom, and analyzing the immunity mapping of one million samples. In addition to this qualitative agreement, the purchase of tests from several companies in the United States of America, Switzerland, and South Korea was also approved. As a result, the number of targeted tests exceeded 14.5 million, covering nearly 40% of the Kingdom’s population.”
Active role of Wasfaty
“Wasfaty [‘My Prescription’ – an app that aims to ensure the availability of medicines by linking hospitals and primary health care centres with community pharmacies, so that patients are able to get the medicine they need from a location that is closest to them – Ed.] contributed to the pandemic response efforts and ensured that patients received treatment through community pharmacies during curfew times. It also succeeded in issuing more than 33,252 prescriptions to 33,000 beneficiaries, in addition to delivering 6000 medical prescriptions across 96 health guesthouses. Wasfaty had also provide a home delivery service to its beneficiaries in all kingdom regions in order to enhance the healthcare for all patients.”
Marketplace as a reliable platform to address the pandemic
“Marketplace [a platform that allows the display of medical products and makes them available to government health agencies – Ed.] has been active in providing treatments and administering preventive measures in record time, helping the government health entities to provide the best and fastest healthcare services to patients during the pandemic period.
“The Sharek program was also activated as a service to enable the health authorities to display medical supplies related to COVID-19, besides recycling them and sharing them with other health authorities, achieving substantial savings and ensuring the availability of supplies at all times.”