Tanat Chinbunchorn, a physician and HIV prevention researcher, was mid-flight between Bangkok, Thailand, and Boston on Friday when he received a text message informing him that the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections had been moved online.
“I traveled for 20 hours,” he said, speaking to STAT from his Boston hotel room on Saturday. Chinbunchorn works for the Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Center and had received a young investigators grant to present a scientific poster at CROI on the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis to reduce HIV transmission in Thailand.
The novel coronavirus upended those plans. Citing safety concerns about the global outbreak and the growing need for infectious disease experts to remain at their home hospitals, CROI decided there would be no in-person sessions at this year’s meeting. All data sharing would be done virtually, instead.
The coronavirus epidemic has basically shut down the conference business across all industries. The problem is especially acute in health care because of concerns that clinician attendees might become infected and then bring the virus back to their local institutions where patients are especially vulnerable.
Like CROI, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society decided to cancel any physical gathering for its annual conference later this month, also slated in Boston. Instead, the meeting will take place online.
On Sunday, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology decided to cancel its annual meeting, scheduled March 13-16 in Philadelphia.
“While an incredible amount of work went into planning this year’s educational program, and all of our speakers and abstract authors have put immense time and energy into their presentations and posters, it has reached a point with COVID-19 where the AAAAI felt it was absolutely necessary to cancel the annual meeting in order to protect the health and safety of attendees,” said AAAAI President David Lang, in a statement.
On Monday, the American College of Cardiology took action. Its Scientific Sessions conference scheduled for March 28-30 in Chicago was shuttered. Plans to implement virtual presentations are being figured out, the group said.
Unless the situation improves quickly, the cancellation or disruption of even larger medical meetings in April seems likely. These include the International Liver Congress in London, the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in San Diego, and the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Toronto.
May is even busier, with 35 medical, health care, and health care investing conferences or meetings on the docket, according to a calendar compiled by MacDougall Communications.
STAT is maintaining an up-to-date list on the status of healthcare conferences here.
The financial fallout could be severe. The American Society of Clinical Oncology derived nearly half of its $170 million operating revenue from education fees, meeting registrations, advertising, and exhibitor payments stemming from its multiple conferences, most notably the annual meeting held in Chicago at the end of May.
Biotech and drug companies are also negatively impacted both scientifically and financially. Medical conferences are used to present clinical data on new drugs to clinicians and investors. The meetings also serve as important venues to market approved drugs.
Blueprint Medicines was planning to present new clinical data at the AAAAI meeting this weekend, but will now use a webcast. Last week, Amgen told its science-based employees that travel to medical meetings was prohibited until April 17.
For attendees, disrupted meetings are lost opportunities to learn about new treatments or network with colleagues and mentors.
“I am from a generation where online classrooms are more common, but I still see the value of the in-person conference experience,” said Matthew Spinelli, a physician and clinical research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.
Over the weekend, Spinelli was in San Francisco recording himself giving a lecture on data charting the development of a urine test that could be used to ensure adherence to HIV PrEP. The presentation was supposed to be given in person at the CROI meeting, but will now be uploaded and viewed virtually.
“The CROI decision was responsible and the right thing to do, but I’ll miss the instant feedback from being able to answer questions,” said Spinelli. “There’s a certain energy that you get from a live presentation that can’t be replicated online.”
Chinbunchorn traveled a long way just to upload his CROI poster online. He’s disappointed, although he also agrees the group’s decision was correct. The worst part of not having a physical meeting will be missing the opportunity to network with other HIV prevention specialists.
“There’s always next year,” he said.