INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics
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Updated 20 September 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics

INTERVIEW: ‘We were built for times like this’, Johnson & Johnson exec Marzena Kulis says of company’s role in fighting pandemics
  • 134-year firm searches for a vaccine while tackling other regional medical issues

Being a senior executive at a medical company during the most serious health care crisis for a century puts you at the sharp end of events, as Marzena Kulis, managing director of the medical products business of Johnson & Johnson in the Middle East, is well aware.

“We were built for the times like this. We are a company with a 134-year legacy.

“We lived through the previous pandemics of smallpox and Spanish flu, and through the financial crises, through world wars, and our business has expanded and grown,” she told Arab News.

“But it would be wrong to say that what happened in the past few months had no impact on the local, regional and global businesses,” she added.

J&J, a multibillion-dollar giant of the global health care industry, has been in the region for more than 40 years, operating via the three pillars of its business — medical devices, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

But there is no doubt that the company’s profile has been lifted during the pandemic through its work on a potential vaccine. J&J is one of several international companies working flat out to develop a treatment since virtually the first outbreak earlier this year. 

Kulis, an economist by training who has spent almost her entire career in the health care sector, has seen that at first hand in recent months.

“I think our teams globally have been working tirelessly, without a break really, on finding the solutions and, as of now, we are saying that large quantities of the vaccine will be available in the first quarter of 2021,” she said.

“In September, we are planning to begin phase three trials on humans, which will be on a large number of the populations chosen for the trials, but we still believe that it will be early 2021 when we will be able to deliver the vaccine,” she added. Some health experts have criticized the tendency toward “vaccine nationalism” by some countries, eager to be first with a treatment in an international race, or to keep supplies of the medicine for their own people, rather than spreading it equably around the world.

“We are open to discussion with everyone,” Kulis said, pointing to agreements J&J has signed with the US and European authorities on vaccine collaboration, as well as with international organizations such as the GAVI immunization agency supported by many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

J&J also signed up for the “We Stand with Science” campaign to uphold the integrity of the medical scientific process in vaccine development and global regulatory standards.

Kulis is aware of the pressure to produce a vaccine “cure,” but believes safety is paramount. “Although we all would like it to be available tomorrow, the process has to take its time to ensure there are high ethical standards and scientific principles,” she said.

Meanwhile, while the world waits for a vaccine, Kulis has a business to run in the Middle East. The medical devices business in the region includes surgical equipment, and orthopedics and cardiovascular procedures — all affected by the heightened focus on COVID-19 treatments during the pandemic.

In particular, some elective surgeries have been pushed to the back of the queue by patients understandably anxious to protect their health during the pandemic. Lockdowns and economic pressure have also had an effect.

BIO

Born: Krakow, Poland

Education

  • Master’s, Krakow Economic Academy
  • MBA, Stockholm University

Career

  • HD operations officer, World Bank 
  • Executive for Pfizer, Poland and Balkan countries
  • Managing director, Johnson & Johnson, Middle East

“The UAE has restored or reopened some surgeries, but Saudi Arabia is still taking a bit more time reopening for elective surgeries, with the exception of some parts of the country. So, obviously, that has an impact,” Kulis said.

The financials of the business were better than expected in the second quarter, although still some way off what they would have been without the virus. One real positive is that the J&J global supply chain has remained intact, she said.

Kulis’ job gives her a unique insight into the medical problems of the region, and one issue stands out, she says — obesity and its associated complications. J&J sees the extent of the problem in its bariatrics specialism, which deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

“This region is leading the obesity prevalence in the world and we provide medical solution for that as well,” she said, pointing out that three of the top five most obese countries in the world in terms of obesity incidence as a proportion of the population are from the Middle East.

Oncological and gynecological surgery is also a growing part of her division in Saudi Arabia. 

In orthopedics, Kulis said with a hint of humor, “the world has been walking on our knees and our hips for decades.” But there is also an important link to obesity, too, she said, because overweight people are likely to face greater mobility challenges.

“Sooner or later, as a consequence of obesity, people require joint replacement or some other orthopedic intervention,” she said.

The third segment of the medical devices unit is also affected by obesity problems. The cardiovascular and stroke speciality focuses on remedies for heart arrythmia and stroke management.

“We’re still raising the awareness of availability of the surgical treatment for those two. It’s especially important to show that stroke is not a death or disability sentence but can be treated. People can be brought to mobility and quality of life,” Kulis said.

J&J sees as another increasing problem for Saudi Arabia — the treatment of traumatic injuries from traffic accidents.

“It’s really prevalent and a strong focus in Saudi Arabia. The treatment of road accident trauma is part of our orthopedic business. Road accidents are an important part of our work in the Kingdom,” she said.

Overall, the health benefits of Saudi Arabia’s young demographic is, to some extent, outweighed by obesity and other lifestyle issues, she said.

The Kingdom is a focus for expansion for J&J. It opened a headquarters office in Riyadh in 2017, and also has bases in Jeddah and Dammam, serving as a base not only for the medical devices business but also the consumer and pharmaceuticals units. There are about 180 employees in the Kingdom, of whom roughly 40 percent are citizens.

“We have made a conscious effort to ensure we can build up local capacity and help the local population to work with us,” she said. J&J has a local Saudi partner, takes part in official programs to promote health and lifestyle issues within the Kingdom, and has a joint flagship program with the Prince Sultan Humanitarian City Hospital. 

The health sector has been earmarked for greater private sector participation in the Vision 2030 plans to diversify the Kingdom away from the government-dominated energy sector, and J&J is keen to take advantage of any opportunities in that respect.

“We are always exploring the option for enhancement of the business and definitely Saudi is our priority market. 

We haven’t been in any discussions regarding takeover or merger activity so far, but if there are opportunities, we will put it forward to our senior management. We are looking at any opportunity to strengthen our footprint in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kulis’s responsibilities at J&J cover the medial needs of 500 million people in 16 countries stretching from Pakistan to Egypt. But she is keen not to lose sight of the importance of individual cases within the many thousands of patients that benefit from J&J products and procedures every year.

“What keeps me up at night is this question — how can we grow the scale of the business so that we can help more patients get treatment at the right time?

“We all know the stories of people and the families who don’t get care on time, or who wait too long for treatment. I want to shape my organization so that we can share the same dream of preventing that,” she said.


Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year
Updated 13 May 2021

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year
  • ADB arrears paid with $425 million loan from U.K., Sweden and Ireland
  • The Paris Club of major creditors make up around 38 percent of foreign debt

Khartoum: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok hopes Sudan can wipe out its staggering $60 billion foreign debt bill this year by securing relief and deals at an upcoming Paris conference that could bring much-needed investment.
The seasoned UN economist-turned-premier took office at the head of a transitional government shortly after the 2019 ouster of president Omar Al-Bashir whose three-decade iron-fisted rule was marked by economic hardship, deep internal conflicts, and biting international sanctions.
In the past two years, Hamdok and his government have pushed to rebuild the crippled economy and end Sudan’s international isolation.
“We have already settled the World Bank arrears, those of the African Development Bank, and in Paris, we will be settling the International Monetary Fund arrears,” Hamdok told AFP at his office in Khartoum.
Arrears due to the African Development Bank were cleared through a bridging loan worth $425 million from Sweden, Britain and Ireland, while debts to the World Bank were paid off with a $1.1 billion bridging loan from the US.
“Paris also is home to the Paris Club, our biggest creditors... and we will be discussing debt relief with them,” Hamdok said.
Sudan’s debts to the Paris Club, which includes major creditor countries, is estimated to make up around 38 percent of its total $60 billion foreign debt.
Hamdok and top Sudanese officials will be attending Monday’s Paris conference along with by French President Emmanuel Macron, and World Bank and IMF representatives.
The aim is to draw investments to Sudan including in the energy, infrastructure, agriculture and telecommunications sectors.
“We are going to the Paris conference to let foreign investors explore the opportunities for investing in Sudan,” Hamdok said.
“We are not looking for grants or donations.”
Sudan was taken off Washington’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism in December, removing a major hurdle to foreign investment.
The government has also embarked on tough measures including subsidy cuts and introducing a managed currency float to qualify for an IMF debt relief program.
Though widely unpopular, the premier says the measures were necessary to move toward debt relief “by the end of the year.”
But many challenges still lie ahead.
His government has been pushing to forge peace with rebel groups to end conflicts in far-flung regions.
In October, it signed a landmark peace deal with rebels from the western region of Darfur as well the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Only two groups including one which wields substantial power in Darfur refused to sign the deal.
To Hamdok, the peace deal represents “50 percent on the road to peace.”
Efforts are underway to sign deals with the remaining groups, and talks with a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) are slated for later this month.
Hamdok acknowledged the slow pace of implementing the peace deal, but said Sudan is “steadily moving forward.”
In February, Sudan appointed three ex-rebels to the ruling sovereign council and announced a new transitional cabinet including seven ex-rebels.
“We have come a long way... and in my view the second stage of talks will go much faster.”
Simmering tensions with neighboring Ethiopia over a fertile border region and a gigantic dam on the Blue Nile pose another challenge.


UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans
Updated 13 May 2021

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans
  • Nemaura Medical has developed a diabetes-tracking wearable device
  • Product launches are planned for Germany, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: A British medical technology company behind an innovative diabetes monitoring system has identified Saudi Arabia as one of its key target markets.

Nemaura Medical has developed a wearables device which can help diabetics track their blood glucose levels, and the Kingdom is high on the firm’s international expansion plans list.

Its sugarBEAT continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) product was recently launched in the UK and is targeted at people suffering from conditions such as diabetes who want a needle-free alternative.

Initially the company recorded orders of 200,000 sugarBEAT sensors in the UK and has forecast total sales of 2.1 million this year.

Following positive feedback in the UK, it has announced plans to expand internationally and is lining up product launches in Germany, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Faz Chowdhury, the chief executive officer of Nemaura Medical, said: “We believe our technology is ground-breaking and represents a paradigm shift in the way people with diabetes can manage their condition.

“We believe we have a critical first-mover advantage with a product that is easier to use, more flexible, and more cost-effective than existing technologies. We are not aware of any product of a similar nature in clinical studies or that has been submitted for regulatory approval.”

Nemaura Medical was founded in 2011 and recently expanded into the wearables market to develop and commercialize devices which can help to monitor chronic diseases and health conditions without the need for needles.

The CGM market is a growing sector and according to the Allied Market Research company will be worth around $9 billion by 2027.

The potential market for devices such as sugerBEAT in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is considered strong with data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) showing more than 39 million 20 to 79-year-olds in the region having the condition in 2019. The figure is expected to increase to 108 million by 2045.

The IDF has estimated that in Saudi Arabia 15 percent of the adult population has diabetes.


UAE, Seychelles create travel corridor for vaccinated travelers

UAE, Seychelles create travel corridor for vaccinated travelers
Updated 13 May 2021

UAE, Seychelles create travel corridor for vaccinated travelers

UAE, Seychelles create travel corridor for vaccinated travelers

ABU DHABI: The UAE and the Seychelles said that vaccinated people can travel freely between the two countries following the mutual recognition of vaccine certificates issued by their respective authorities.
Quarantine-free travel between the two nations is possible from May 13 as they look to boost tourism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Travelers must show they have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine through a valid certificate from the relevant health authority.


UAE and Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020

UAE and Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020
Updated 13 May 2021

UAE and Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020

UAE and Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020
  • Remittances from Saudi Arabia have been slowly declining since 2015 as oil prices have moderated

DUBAI: The UAE was the second largest source of remittances globally in 2020, followed by Saudi Arabia, according to the latest report from the World Bank.

The US was the biggest source country, sending $68 billion abroad last year, while the foreign workers in the UAE sent home $43 billion and those in Saudi Arabia transferred $35 billion, said the report, published Thursday. Among middle-income countries, immigrants to Russia were the biggest remitters, sending $17 billion.

Remittances from Saudi Arabia have been slowly declining since 2015 as oil prices have moderated and the government has encouraged hiring of nationals. For instance, foreign workers sent $1.8 billion to the Philippines in 2020, down 36 percent from 2015.

Despite the large drop in foreign workers in the GCC, remittances from Saudi Arabia held up in 2020 thanks in part to the cancelation of travel to Saudi Arabia, which diverted funds set aside for the Haj pilgrimage to remittances to Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to the report. Both of those countries offered tax incentives last year to boost remittances from migrant workers abroad, while a devastating flood in July 2020 also led to an increase in payments.

Remittances to the Middle East and North Africa rose by 2.3 percent to about $56 billion in 2020, following a 3.4 percent increase in 2019, the report said. The gains came amid unexpectedly strong inflows to Egypt (up 11 percent to a record $30 billion), the fifth-largest recipient of remittances globally, and to Morocco (6.5 percent to $7.4 billion). Tunisia saw a 2.5 percent increase, while other countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and West Bank and Gaza all experienced double-digit declines.

Globally, remittances to low- and middle-income countries fell 1.6 percent to $540 billion, a smaller decline than expected, the World Bank said. The figure is forecast to increase to $553 billion this year and to $565 billion in 2022.


Turkish lira falls to weakest level this year

Turkish lira falls to weakest level this year
Updated 13 May 2021

Turkish lira falls to weakest level this year

Turkish lira falls to weakest level this year
  • Turkish currency weakens on inflation data
  • Latest losses focus attention on forex reserves

BENGALURU:Turkey’s lira fell to a six-month low on Thursday as risks of tighter US monetary policy after strong inflation data weighed on most emerging market assets, with stocks set for their worst day since late March.
The lira fell around 0.8 percent to 8.4968 against the dollar, just a few points shy of its 8.5789 record low. The currency was likely subject to offshore selling on Thursday, given that Turkish markets were closed for a holiday.
Recent losses in the lira have brought the focus back to Turkey’s shrinking foreign exchange reserves, as well as its central bank, which is hesitant to tighten policy even as inflation surges.
Data on Wednesday showed US consumer prices increased the most in nearly 12 years in April, raising expectations that the US Federal Reserve will tighten its monetary policy sooner than signalled.
The MSCI’s index of emerging market currencies fell 0.2 percent, its third day of declines, as the dollar advanced and yields on 10-year Treasuries marked their biggest daily rise in two months.
The MSCI’s index of emerging market stocks plunged 1.3 percent to a seven-week low.
“With yields moving higher and inflation expectations becoming increasingly un-anchored from 2 percent, expectations grew that the Fed might have to start normalizing monetary policy earlier than previously expected,” said Marshall Gittler, Head of Investment Research at BDSwiss Holding.
“There’s going to be a real struggle for control of the narrative between the Fed and the market for the next few months,” added Gittler.
The Russian rouble strengthened on Thursday, up 0.2 percent, recovering some losses sustained on Wednesday. Bloomberg reported that the country was planning bond buybacks to fix its COVID-ravaged debt market. (https://bloom.bg/33BhvxY)
South Africa’s rand held steady as higher gold prices outweighed interest rate risks and a stronger dollar.
Most Central European currencies gained on Thursday with the Czech crown, Hungarian forint and Polish zloty gaining between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent.
Still, JPMorgan reiterated its underweight position in Central and Eastern European local bonds and currencies, warning of “taper tantrum” risk as central banks tighten monetary policy.
Central bank bond purchase programs in Hungary and Poland — to support their economies through the coronavirus crisis — have been among the largest in emerging markets over the past year.
Asian currencies and stocks declined, while Taiwan stocks dropped 1.5 percent and the dollar eased 0.2 percent on fears of a COVID-19 resurgence and as the island started a rotational electricity blackout after a major outage at a coal plant.