The five-day Bio-Europe Spring 2020 conference, possibly the first ever life sciences partnering event staged in an all-virtual format, ended on Friday, March 27, with high hopes that the industry would return to face-to-face interactions next year in Barcelona.

EBD Group had a little more than two weeks to restage the event, originally scheduled for three days in Paris. Other organizers of upcoming industry conferences are also going digital, postponing or canceling. While the virtual set-up is not ideal, it is the reality of trying to do business with the global pandemic COVID-19 underway.

“Besides doing business, we have had the opportunity to sneak in everybody’s kitchens, home offices or gardens and we have met your spouses, children, cats and dogs,” said Jordi Naval, the CEO of Biocat, which represents the biotech region of Catalonia and Barcelona, who spoke as part of a virtual closing reception.

Jordi Naval, CEO, Biocat

“And I think this has been a beautiful experience and it has given us a new sense of human community,” he added. “We are not just the serious men and women in dark suits that you see at conferences. We are all in this together as human beings. And many of you are already working on solutions to stop this dreadful pandemic.”

Final numbers are not yet ready, but at the beginning of the week, Bio-Europe Spring had 1,800 delegates participating, down from 2,570 last year in Vienna. Partnering meetings were at more than 6,000. EBD reported more than 15,400 meetings for this conference in 2019.

According to EBD Group’s managing director, Anna Chrisman, it is the first large-scale partnering event ever to be done this way.

“We felt strongly that Bio-Europe Spring was important as an event where deal discussions are initiated for the rest of the year,” Chrisman told BioWorld. “At the time when we made the decision, partnering activity was already in full swing, and we knew based on the data that our attendees were relying on Bio-Europe Spring for their deal flow.”

Anna Chrisman, managing director, EBD Group

All content was recorded and eventually posted to the website. Making the conference five days instead of three days helped accommodate the different time zones. The most difficult part was setting up a virtual meeting platform, Chrisman said.

“Most delegates have had great experiences with the meeting system,” she said. “There are understandably some localized glitches to do with personal internet of meeting participants, but our team has been able to solve many of those.

“Also, we have received positive feedback around being able to do it all,” she added. “Usually, our attendees often have to choose between attending presentations or panel discussions and conducting partnering meetings. In this format, they can do it all on their own schedule.”

Although some people were skeptical at first and there was disappointment that informal networking would not transfer to a digital format, “in the end, the main value is in partnering, and the sentiment has shifted very quickly,” Chrisman said, “as we are all coming to terms with the fact that most of our interactions are going to be virtual for a while.”

Status of upcoming conferences

Bio-Europe Spring was the second virtual biopharma conference covered in March by BioWorld. The Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) meeting moved to a digital format two days before it was supposed to begin in Boston on March 8.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) announced on March 24 plans to go virtual during the May 29 to June 2 meeting originally set for Chicago. The ChinaBio Partnering Forum scheduled for Suzhou in May was moved to the fall, and the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) postponed the International Liver Congress 2020 from April to August in London. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) canceled its San Diego meeting in April and will provide some content virtually, while it works on rescheduling for some time in August.

The American Academy of Neurology said on March 13 that it had “no choice” but to cancel the meeting scheduled for April 25 to May 1 in Toronto. It is the first time it has been canceled in 72 years. The conference was expected to have more than 3,000 scientific sessions for more than 15,000 attendees. All are receiving full registration fee refunds.

EASL is offering refunds of registration fees, “minus the handling management fee required by our agencies,” for those who cannot make the new dates, it said on its website. AACR and ASCO registrants are eligible for full refunds.

CROI went virtual with a March 6 announcement, and at the time, there were no refunds, except for residents of China and other countries that were under a specific travel ban due to COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, although the CROI Foundation carries meeting liability insurance that covers most natural disasters and even a terrorist attack, we learned, as did many other large conference organizers, that many similar policies exclude cancellations due to ‘organic pathogens’ like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus,” CROI said on its website. “We will do our best to get this right, but again, we ask for your patience as we work through the financial implications of the COVID-19 epidemic on the current and future CROI conferences.”

Some other conferences scheduled for May and June are in wait-and-see mode.

The American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy said on March 19 it planned to continue the in-person conference scheduled for May 12-15 in Boston.

The European Hematology Association’s annual meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, June 11-14, will be decided upon by the end of April. In a statement, the organization said it was “currently developing alternative scenarios to be able to provide a high quality scientific and education EHA Congress in various formats, including virtual options.”

Another large upcoming conference is the BIO International Convention set for San Diego June 8-11. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization stated on its website that it still plans to hold the event “while closely monitoring new measures and directives around the mitigation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”

As for Bio-Europe Spring, Chrisman said face-to-face interaction is preferred for future conferences and the virtual format is not expected to replace EBD’s physical events.

“However, if this situation has taught us anything, it is the fact that we need to be able to react in an agile way to the circumstances of our audience,” Chrisman said. “If needed, we will be able to run fully or partially digital events in the future. At the same time, we are also learning about ways this could enhance our existing conference model and make it more sustainable.”

Bio-Europe Spring is scheduled for March 22-24, 2021, in Barcelona, where it was held three other times, most recently in 2017.