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The year in review

The twists and surprises of 2019

Rohit Khanna

Rohit Khanna

The end of every calendar year brings with it the motivation to take a stroll down memory lane. 

2019

With that said, let’s review some of the top healthcare stories from the past year. In 2019, reports began to surface about the development of a mysterious vaping-related illness that would ultimately end up affecting over 2,000 people and killing more than 30 in the United States.

Eventually, in mid-November there came reports of a suspected culprit: Vitamin E acetate. As we move through the weeks and months to come, it will be critical to see how global agencies and governments coordinate their effort and response to this crisis.

Speaking of response and crisis, 2019 also reminded us that Ebola is still around. As of September, a total of 3,091 Ebola virus disease cases were reported, including 2,980 confirmed and 111 probable cases, of which 2,074 patients died.

These numbers make this the second-largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded, after the West Africa outbreak of 2014-2016. This is a stark reminder that much work remains to be done in order to stay ahead of this deadly disease.

With a US presidential election looming in 2020, Democratic candidates began to make their healthcare views known this past year and ‘Medicare for All’ became a popular theme in the discussion. But an emerging trend is the push for a new wealth tax on the uber-rich to help pay for ‘Medicare for All’.

Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have outlined the framework of raising trillions of dollars to fund their respective visions through taxing America’s wealthiest families. What might have previously been a footnote on a year-end list now has the chance to be a major tipping point in deciding who sits in the Oval Office in 2020.

And no review of healthcare in 2019 would be complete without mentioning the opioid crisis. In 2019, we saw an avalanche of legal manoeuvrings and proposed settlements with companies like Purdue, Johnson and Johnson, McKesson, AmeriSource Bergen, Cardinal Health and Teva now offering to pay jurisdictions for their role in this public health catastrophe. We will have to see what, if any, movement is made in 2020 to hold these companies responsible.

In 2019, the world of digital health witnessed the continued ascension of the big three players: Apple, Google and Amazon. Late in the year, Google announced its purchase of FitBit which may provide a window into the company’s wearables strategy and its continued push to invest in trials.

And earlier this year, court documents revealed that Amazon may seriously be considering working directly with health plans and employers to sell prescription drugs – a move that would effectively allow it to operate like a pharmacy benefits manager.

Finally, Apple announced that it would begin working with leading academic institutions to study women’s health, heart and movement and hearing. Needless to say, while much of the digital health excitement is driven by smaller, innovative and more nimble players, it is a good bet that the leadership in this space will continue to be pushed by the ‘Big Three’.

This past year also brought us more news on the gene-editing front. Fresh off the revelation that He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, edited the genomes of twin girls in China, the World Health Organization announced in March that a committee will meet to set guidelines for human gene editing.

And then came the news in October that Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov has started gene editing using eggs donated by women who can hear, to learn how to allow some deaf couples to give birth to children without a genetic mutation that impairs hearing.

Of course, each year has a group of ‘honourable mentions’ for top newsworthy stories. For example, the continued uncertainty around Brexit and its impact on the life sciences community was a big story in 2019. With a new Brexit deadline of 31 January 2020, it is sure to be on the list next year.

There is also the nomination of the new FDA commissioner and the potential change this would bring, both in drug approval strategy and policy outlook.

The Alzheimer’s community is looking towards a big year in 2020 with the late-year news that Biogen will submit a Biologics License Application for aducanumab and the news that China has approved a new Alzheimer’s drug.

And, finally, there is the surge in measles cases in 2019, which now adds up to the greatest number of cases reported in the US in over a quarter of a century.

As always, the end of one year brings a flood of memories and the anticipation for an equally exciting year ahead. To all the readers of Pharmaceutical Market Europe, a happy and healthy holiday season and best wishes for 2020!

Rohit Khanna is the Managing Director of Catalytic Health, a healthcare communication, advertising & strategy agency. He can be reached at: rohit@catalytichealth.com

31st December 2019

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