It was a year like no other for the healthcare industry, so why shouldn’t its premier investor meeting follow suit?

When I first heard that the venerable JPMorgan Health Conference would be online for the first time in its 39-year history, I knew things would be different – even at a time when numerous other trade shows had already made the switch. After all, this is an event whose locale is on par with its content. JPM is nearly synonymous with its host city of San Francisco and with its venue: the Westin St. Francis, whose high ceilings, vintage photos and miles of velvet rope evoke the feel of a grand old hotel. 

That strong sense of place informs one’s reporting, as does the unparalleled access to quotable sources when 600 leading healthcare companies and 3,000 global investors converge in one building for four days. I would miss that, it’s true. But for whom and for what? 

As I settled into my seat at home for Monday’s first livestreamed Zoom, I thought back to what it took to attend that 7:30 a.m. company presentation at the same time a year prior: Leaving my family for several days and flying cross-country, waking at the crack of dawn and arriving a half-hour early just to beat the crowd and find a good seat.

I contemplated the logistical headaches I wasn’t grappling with, such as vying for electric outlets and workspace – and foraging for coffee and snacks – and writing like mad, then returning to do it all over again the next day. Being on site also meant navigating between main session and breakout rooms via packed hallways, and trying to be in two or even three venues at once. The Biotech Showcase and StartUp Health Festival beckoned from across town, each with their own set of potential operational snafus. 

This internal dialogue, all of which transpired over a couple of days, concluded with the realization that the aforementioned… let’s go with “adventure”… was well worth it. Why? For the sheer delight of seeing and speaking with colleagues and friends in person, sometimes bumping into them while walking the hilly streets between meetings; for networking with people who share a common interest; and for the exhilaration of being on the ground during one of the year’s most newsworthy weeks. 

The life sciences world is meant to congregate in San Francisco for these four days. Let’s hope we put the pandemic behind us in 2021 and that we can all safely return to – and meet up in – that gloriously unglamorous spot for JPM40.

Indeed, attending from afar wasn’t quite the same. Here are a few additional reflections on this year vis-a-vis previous ones.

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson (Source: Getty)

A culture of science 

Last year’s JPM saw a crop of “new, energetic pharma CEOs” take the stage to tout culture change. GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley, hired from consumer goods company L’Oreal, stressed her fresh perspective and her description of how culture underlies her priorities. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan emphasized his “unbossed” approach to investing in and upgrading the firm’s leadership. Roche CEO Bill Anderson spoke of “rejuvenating” the 124-year-old drugmaker, while Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said he was working to inject qualities such as agility back into his company’s cultural DNA. 

The company heads who made their mark this year focused instead on letting the science speak for itself. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel and BioNTech CEO Dr. Ugur Sahin, whose companies make the currently available mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, shared techy updates about production capacity, halving the dose to stretch supply and the shots’ ability to protect from worrisome new variants of the virus. All three are of utmost importance amid the surging pandemic and slower-than-expected rollout.

Walmsley, Narasimhan and Anderson were seeking to connect with a younger generation of talent, whose parents probably admired stalwarts such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson for being family friendly and research-driven. Thanks to their firms’ heroic coronavirus response, in the span of 10 months Bancel and Sahin have restored that admiration through science.

Same old, same old

Then again, COVID-19’s ecosystem-scrambling effects have prevented others from moving forward. One such organization is Teva, whose CEO, Kare Schultz, reminded us that class-action opioid litigation remains a big overhang for the Israeli pharma company. “I was hoping we could reach a settlement, but COVID delayed the trial,” Schultz lamented. 

A year ago, the pharma industry found itself reeling from years of reputational damage and the opioid crisis was an oft-cited reason. While the sector’s reputation is on the rise, the opioid fallout hasn’t exactly receded. Settling the litigation would help the sector – and the country – begin to move past the crisis. “We have five companies involved, 1,500 plaintiffs and 50 states,” Schultz added. “If there’s no time pressure, then there’s no incentive to get it done quickly.”

Although Purdue filed for Chapter 11 in late 2019 to avoid that litigation, this past December’s congressional opioid hearing involving the OxyContin maker reminded us of those pre-COVID days, before the pharma-as-good-guy narrative began to take hold. Meanwhile, the overdose epidemic continues. Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, deaths from drug abuse ticked up again last year, even as prescription opioid use declined by double-digits. 

Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos (Source: Getty)

Biopharma advances on the digital front

Last year was poised to be a breakthrough year for innovation for life sciences companies. COVID blew up the notion of the slow digital transformation, forcing companies to adapt and execute their long-term plans almost overnight. But it was good to see some of that earlier groundwork paying off. 

For instance, this year’s conference saw pharma companies demonstrate their commitment to real-world evidence in R&D. Biogen, which is looking forward to a March 7 PDUFA date on its Alzheimer’s disease drug aducanumab, announced a study to develop digital biomarkers of cognitive health using Apple Watch and iPhone. 

The study provided a talking point for CEO Michel Vounatsos, who hailed it as an example of “patients taking command of their disease.” It’s designed to evaluate use of the devices in potentially detecting mild cognitive impairment, an early indicator of certain forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s. 

This wasn’t Biogen’s first rodeo when it comes to leveraging consumer technology to involve patients in clinical trials around neurological diseases. Back in 2015 the company funded a study, in partnership with PatientsLikeMe, that used Fitbits among patients with multiple sclerosis to measure a critical indicator of the disease, mobility.

Companies are using RWE-driven insights in other ways. Roche’s CFO/CIO Dr. Alan Hippe was asked how the drugmaker is using RWE for decision-making. “We want to go for synthetic control arms,” he responded. 

Synthetic control arms simulate the arms of a clinical trial using RWE. Patients that apply to be part of a trial, Hippe explained, “want to be on the innovative stuff,” rather than the standard-of-care arm. “FDA has shown a certain level of support” to consider RWE in regulatory decision-making, paving the way for more efficient regulatory submissions, he added.

Exhibit A: the Swiss company’s cancer med Alecensa used RWE to secure approval in Europe. “We have more work to do to get it bulletproof,” Hippe said.

While COVID has opened the lid to more business for a handful of companies, one of its more widely felt dividends is that companies have learned how to function more effectively in a virtual environment. Expect life sci’s digital evolution to continue, and at a slightly quicker pace than before the pandemic.