Putting an unprecedented year in the rear view and what it says about the one to come
Last December, we wrote that 2020 would be a hard year to forget. Ten months of pandemic life had clouded our sense of clarity and purpose — no 20/20 in 2020. As we headed into our first lockdown holiday season, the only true certainty we could entertain was that the world had changed irrevocably.
Vaccines were very much on the horizon, with Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-Astrazeneca having all completed Phase III trials. But effectiveness? Deployment? Availability? These were all still theoretical. The carrot was dangling but it was still out of reach. And the COVID stick just kept battering us.
Those were long months that followed, marked by a world that still moved in fits and starts. Rays of light were fleeting and all too quickly extinguished by new clouds. But, in the second quarter, those clouds began to part. The vaccines increasingly found their way into our lives, changing the outlook and breathing life into our … well … lives.
It didn’t happen all at once but, slowly, some semblance of normality started to feel plausible again. Restrictions eased, we connected with people again, we sat on patios, some of us returned to our offices. Around the world, there was a collective sigh of relief.
It was nice while it lasted.
BETTER OFF THAN WHERE WE STARTED?
A year later, as we head into the second pandemic holiday season, restrictions are on the upswing again.
For many of us in Healthcare and Life Sciences, it was a predictable outcome — in large part because that collective sigh of relief wasn’t actually shared by everyone. Huge sections of the world are still waiting to be vaccinated, even as some of us are on our third jabs.
Omicron may have surprised us with its particularly impressive set of mutations. But it was inevitable that one or another Greek letter was going to come along and rap us on our complacent noses.
Of course, the specifics are different this time. We’re armed with more information and we have more tools with which to defend ourselves. Hopefully, one of those tools is the foreknowledge to do what’s required to prevent December 2022 from being a repeat of this cycle.
As much as 2020 felt like a year locked in anticipation by the universal pause button, 2021 has felt a lot like a kid forever tapping that button on and off — a stuttering, irritating approximation of real life.
We learned a lot about the world in the past two years, much of it revelatory, even revolutionary. But we’ve been reluctant to fully embrace those insights, perhaps hoping that a slide back to normalcy would let us hold on to more of the pre-pandemic status quo.
If we’re to find some sustainable equilibrium in the coming year, we’re going to have to do a lot better at following through with what we know to be the best and most equitable steps forward.
FINDING SUCCESS IN PREDICTABLE UNPREDICTABILITY
Thankfully, there are plenty of signs that positive change can be plucked from the jaws of precariousness.
The rocky path forward is making us more resilient. We’re developing an agility for handling the inevitable unexpected — socially, psychologically and in the pursuit of keeping the motors of the world running.
Some sectors have even thrived. Healthcare and Life Sciences, for one, has continued to chase success with more success. Given the nature of the crisis, this isn’t entirely surprising. But credit where credit is due — the sector has risen admirably to the challenges of the age.
In our Health Care in the Crystal Ball feature from February 2021, we highlighted several areas where we predicted unprecedented growth and innovation. Chief among these was telemedicine and telehealth, where we expected pandemic-driven issues with on-site access to drive a speedier transition. This has been borne out.
What was still something of a novelty at the beginning of the year has now become a default entry point for many people’s health needs. Platforms like Teledoc and Dialogue have established themselves as the primary health providers for individuals and organizations alike.
Pharma and Biotech have also kept the innovation engines firing on all cylinders. The incredibly short timeline from viral identification to deployable vaccine would have seemed miraculous prior to 2021. Now, we barely raise an eyebrow with the imminent approval of oral COVID treatments like Pfizer’s Paxlovid or Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics’ Molnupiravir.
The sector’s fleet-footedness is being recognized and rewarded on the investment front as well. A recent report from PwC makes particular note of the activity around health service IPOs:
For years, there were no pure health services IPOs, but 2020 saw two, and 2021 has seen eight. This count excludes SPAC-backed IPOs, of which there have been at least a dozen in the 12 months through November 15 — two were classified as megadeals.
The report further predicts 2022 as a watershed year:
In 2022, we expect M&A investments to reach $350 billion to $400 billion, driven by all subsectors. The continuation of the $5 billion to $15 billion biotech deals, combined with medium-sized pharma ($50 billion) and medical device ($25 billion) deals is expected to drive significant investment dollars in M&A.
For the better part of two years, we have lived with the ebbs and flows of various regimes and restrictions. Mask mandates, testing, travel bans, lockdowns and vaccination passports (not to mention creeping inflation, supply chain issues and workforce shortages) have contributed to a landscape built on what seems like shifting sand. And yet business in Healthcare and Life Sciences is booming.
Our sector has been able to do this by embracing the predictably unpredictable, using it to fuel change and innovation. Unparalleled growth and dealmaking are well-deserved side effects.
If we could take a fraction of that energy and momentum, and dedicate it to pressing authorities towards a more coherent global COVID strategy, we could find ourselves in a very different place by this time next year.
It may be a little trite to say that 2022 is our opportunity to take another kick at the can. But that doesn’t make it less true.
For all the successes of the sector, we’ve left a lot of jobs unfinished, not least the one of getting enough of the world vaccinated to get this pandemic under control.
We’ve proven that Healthcare and Life Sciences can flourish even in times of adversity. The question is — this time — can we do more to lead humanity through to the other side of it?
Across industries, ESG and stakeholder capitalism have started to take hold as the new paradigms in organizational philosophy. Perhaps because our sector has been preoccupied with the pandemic — or perhaps because we’ve been caught up in a life sciences gold rush — governance, society and the environment haven’t been at the top of our priorities. But what if they were?
What would it look like if we put the expertise, the intellectual power and resources of our industry behind a whole new framework of positive change?
That really would be unpredictable.
“Leading in the Age of Uncertainty” Bedford Group, 2021,
“Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),” Our World in Data, 2021,
Lex Harvey, May Warren, “Omicron Is Making the Holidays Complicated. 50 COVID Experts Weigh In” The Star, 2021,
Chris Beyrer, “What Will Stop Omicron? Vaccines, Masks, and Paid Sick Leave,” Barrons, 2021,
Matthew Herper, “Pfizer’s Covid Pill Remains 89% Effective in Final Analysis, Company Says,” STAT, 2021,
“Health Services: Deals 2022 Outlook,” PwC, 2021,
“The New Normal Is Already Here. Get Used to It,” The Economist, 2021,