By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more selective of the conferences I choose to attend. From a list that once included 20+ meetings a year, I’m down to about six I consider “can’t miss.” It was 2011 when I was invited to attend the R&D Leadership Summit (RDL) in its inaugural year. And with the exception of one year where I had a scheduling conflict, I’ve attended RDL — every — single — year. But in March 2020, due to coronavirus fears, RDL organizers decided to pull the plug, following other big events such as South By Southwest (SXSW), DCAT Week 2020, HIMSS, and Life Science Leader’s CMO Leadership Awards.
When It Comes To The Coronavirus, Conference Errs On Side Of Caution
Now known as SARS-CoV-2, known to cause COVID-19, the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, back in early Dec. 2019, is now wreaking havoc all over the world. While some hold out hope that the coming warm weather could curb the coronavirus outbreak, because SARS-CoV-2 is so new, experts aren’t yet sure if it will experience the same seasonality as other viruses (e.g., season flu). And though the annual gathering of RDL is fairly intimate (i.e., roughly 200 executives) when compared to HIMSS (i.e., nearly 45,000 from 90+ countries), the executive director of pharma & biotech events for The Conference Forum, Valerie Bowling, in consultation with senior advisors, opted to err on the side of caution, announcing the postponement of RDL at 5:40 PM on Thurs., Mar. 5, 2020.
Was I surprised? Yes and no. I mean, earlier in the day I had posted to LinkedIn my plans to attend RDL (coronavirus or not), as Bowling had been keeping attendees well informed of the various precautions being taken to provide for a safer event. Plus, it had added two sessions on the coronavirus (i.e., Addressing COVID-19: An Emergency Response to Developing an Anti-Viral, and a Fireside Leadership Chat on Pandemic Preparedness), so it seemed a great opportunity to hear first-hand perspectives from some of our industry’s top scientists working to solve the problem. For example, planned speakers for this year’s RDL included the cofounder and CSO at Regeneron, George Yancopoulos, M.D., (a company that had announced hopes of having a coronavirus treatment ready for human testing possibly by this summer), along with Mathai Mammen, M.D., Ph.D. (global head of R&D at Janssen), David Nicholson, Ph.D. (EVP & chief R&D officer at Allergan), Alise Reicin, M.D. (former president of global clinical development at Celgene), and Sumant Ramachandra, M.D., Ph.D. (president of pharmaceuticals and SVP and chief science and technology officer at Baxter), just to name a few. So, despite the anxiety surrounding travel during the current outbreak, given RDL is small in size, and the fact that it’s attended by plenty of well-educated people, many being trained healthcare providers, going didn’t seem that significant a risk. But when it was announced that HIMSS was cancelling mid-day on Mar. 5, I was not surprised to see the domino effect of conferences that quickly followed suit.
Was I disappointed by the postponement of RDL? Yes. Because though I was relieved that by not travelling I’d be reducing my risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, I also know how fruitful and transparent RDL conversations tend to be. This is because the conference utilizes the Chatham House Rule (i.e., participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker/s, nor that of any other participant, may be revealed), enabling discussions that can (and do) become heated among participants. But truth be told, I was somewhat surprised to have been able to attend the 2020 BIO CEO & Investor conference held just a month earlier. This is because ever since I first heard about the coronavirus, I’ve held the perspective that it would cause pandemonium once it reached the U.S. Because given the global economy in which we now live, and China’s massive presence within, the coronavirus’s arrival in the U.S. wasn’t a matter of if, but when. And now that it’s here and spreading, I finally feel comfortable in sharing why I believe COVID-19 is something for which we should have a healthy fear.
Why The U.S. Holds The Potential To Be A Coronavirus Catastrophe
I grew up in a household headed by David L. Wright, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician. As such, I am well aware as to the importance Dr. Wright (and the majority of his medical peers) place on vaccines to a child’s (and a society’s) health and well-being. And while vaccine resistance isn’t anything new in the United States, since 2009, the number of “philosophical-belief” vaccine non-medical exemptions has risen in 12 of 18 states that allow them. And as this social movement of public health vaccine opposition has risen, so too have outbreaks from diseases once declared eradicated. For example, outbreaks from the measles (which has a fatality rate of approximately 15 percent), labeled as eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, has been on the rise, with the majority of those infected having not been vaccinated. Believe it or not, there are schools where 20, 30 and 40 percent of kids have not been vaccinated. How do we think “anti-vaxers” will do if the coronavirus catches hold in their communities? Look. I realize we don’t yet have a coronavirus vaccine, so everyone who hasn’t been exposed is susceptible. But those who have been avoiding vaccines fall into a category of being immune compromised, and therefore, are at a greater risk. So, while some have been focusing on the coronavirus as having a low mortality rate (1 to 2 percent), I won’t be surprised if it ends up being much higher.
Another population at risk are any babies born via C-section. Why? A study of 6,157 infants born in New York and tracked over three years, found that infants delivered by C-section were at more than double the risk of developing food-borne allergies and asthma by their third birthday than those born vaginally. Other studies have shown emergency C-sections to have the highest rates of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes or obesity in later years, along with respiratory infection and eczema. To be sure, some C-sections simply can’t be avoided. But as roughly one-third of all U.S. births are now done via C-section, doesn’t this constitute another group that could be defined as being at least somewhat immune compromised?
Infants admitted to an NICU (i.e., premies) are known to have life-long health issues, many being respiratory related. As overall NICU admissions have increased to 77.9 per 1,000 births, this is another at population that could be devastated by a full-grown coronavirus pandemic.
What else scares me about the coronavirus in the U.S.? How about the fact that 16 percent of our population is 65 years of age (defined as elderly) or older? We know that aging impacts both innate and adaptive arms of the immune system to impair control of viral infections, so here’s another at-risk population. But the things that scare me most come from what was observed in China during the outbreak. For example, there are videos of people actively trying to spread the virus. Now we can debate the authenticity of these videos. But let’s not kid ourselves. There are plenty in the world eager to watch it burn, and the U.S. has its fair share of such crackpots. There are videos purporting to show the China healthcare system being overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, and buildings being welded/barricaded shut to enforce quarantines. Again, we can debate as to whether these videos portray the coronavirus situation in China accurately. But we know the country mobilized significant resources to try to prevent the spread and manage the infected, including the building of a 1,000-bed hospital in 10-days, along with transforming stadiums and convention centers into temporary hospitals.
There are videos of the streets in Wuhan (the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak) being desolate during the middle of the day. Keep in mind, this is a city with a population of over 11 million, making it larger than Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix — combined! Wuhan has two million more people than New York City, and was essentially locked down. Can you imagine trying to lock down NYC? How about if we have to try to lock down much of the U.S.?
As of this writing, there are shortages of hand sanitizer, face masks, bleach, and toilet paper, and this is with a total U.S. death toll (from the coronavirus) at just 24 people. But as the infection is spreading, so too are fears. For example, on the day I had planned on being in FL for the first day of RDL (Mon., Mar. 9), the DJIA finished down more than 2,000 points. So, while I regret not getting to go, I applaud the organizers of the above-mentioned events for having the fortitude to make the right calls on what I’m sure were very difficult decisions. Because here’s the reality: Things have already gone a bit sideways, and it is likely to get worse before it gets better. Will we get through it? Absolutely. But we will experience some pain along the way, and we don’t need to exacerbate things by holding events that could add fuel to the already raging coronavirus fire.