SAO PAULO, Brazil – A lackluster start for what is one of the largest annual biotech conferences in Latin America underscored the challenges to the industry in Brazil, a country struggling to recover from a series of political and economic reversals that have thrown the once promising economy into chaos.

Just about 200 people attended the opening ceremony of BIO Latin America on Thursday, a stark contrast to the packed conference rooms that have marked the annual conference over the past two years. The event this year is being held in Sao Paulo, as opposed to Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the past two events.

The visible shortage of people during the opening ceremonies was surprising and pointed to both the challenges facing the industry across the continent and the difficulties that Brazil itself is being forced to weather, including the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and the worst recession since 1930. The country's economy contracted 3.8 percent last year and the International Monetary Fund expects it to contract another 3.3 percent this year. Some 12 million people are out of work. The political crisis impacted the country's economy, which was already hit by low oil prices and lackluster global trade even as tourism took a hit by the outbreak of Zika virus disease, which started in Brazil for all intents and purposes.

All that has translated into lower sales of all products, including pharmaceuticals. For example, retail sales dropped 0.6 percent by volume and 0.5 percent by value in August compared to July. Sales volumes are down 6.6 percent for the year to August, although up 5.1 percent by value in the same period. Still, sales of pharmaceutical, medical, orthopedic and perfumery products fell 2.8 percent, according to numbers from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

"It is a difficult moment for Brazil; everybody knows it. We are very happy to have the auditory full, and to have everyone here, thank you very much," said Eduardo Emrich, president and CEO at Biominas, co-organizer partner of BIO Latin America, standing in front of a sparse audience.

Sources attending the conference confirmed to BioWorld Today that the organizers of this year's event are very concerned about the outcome and struggled to fund the conference as public sector sponsorship has shrunk and multiple crises have taken a toll on the life sciences sector in the largest economy in Latin America. Since Rousseff was impeached on Aug. 31, the country has been run by her former vice president, Michel Temer.

"Our priority when we started thinking of the event is really to offer you the best – to have the best program, the best speakers, the best partnering, the best networking, to offer all of you the best in life sciences in Latin America," said Emrich.

The stated aim of this year's conference is to examine the trends affecting innovative biotech development in Latin America, the development of new regulations for the biotech sector in Brazil and the future of the biotherapeutics business across the region.

Unlike previous years, however, there is little discussion of a wider regional vision involving any forward momentum for the biotech sectors of the main Latin American countries. Rather, the agenda is highly focused on the Brazilian market, its opportunities, challenges and regulations.

"We have more than 500 people registered to this event, we are very happy to have all of you here in Sao Paulo," said Emrich, overlooking the fact that very few of those people attended the opening ceremony.

Others were much more optimistic about the outlook for Brazil and its biotech industry.

"Client diversity, the potential of building a bio-based economy here is limitless," said James Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) in Washington. "When innovators, investors, institutions support each other, there's no problem too big for us to solve."

A case in point, he said, is the ongoing development of biotech solutions to address the health threat posed by the Zika virus around the world, particularly in Brazil.

For most participants, focus is on the challenges that lie ahead for innovation and solutions that the region can offer to global companies interested, not only in entering Latin American markets but also in undertaking clinical research and investigation, and in overcoming the significant barriers to conduct world-class clinical trials throughout the region.

While the level of attendance at the opening ceremony was much lower than other years, participation increased through the day.

BIO stands as the largest trade association representing biotech companies, the academy and institutions around the world.