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Looking back at 2015–2018.
Ah, those pre-COVID days. When losing your sense of smell just meant allergic rhinitis, a sinus infection, or possibly nasal polyps. How it was all to change. Perhaps we should have seen it coming, but during the years 2015–2018 there were other distractions. In the US and UK, for example, it was a period of political upheaval, one that divided each country even further along partisan lines, pitting Left against Right, populists against the elites, and the rural against the urban.
In the US, Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016, despite the “expert pundits” telling everyone that he wouldn’t. Instantly, a chasm was opened between the new administration and most of the commentariat; the next four years were dominated by one berating the other, almost to the point where individual policy successes and failures became lost in the shouting match. No wonder few people were paying attention to where the next big infectious disease might come from.
A similar political earthquake rocked the UK in June 2017 when the country voted to leave the European Union, against the advice and expectations of its own government and its most powerful institutions. The bitter feud between the “Leavers” and the “Remainers” that followed mirrored the heated divide in the US and would similarly dominate the UK’s political discourse for the rest of the decade. That is, until both countries were blindsided by the arrival of COVID-19.
But the challenges of COVID are for next month’s final anniversary installment. What we could still do in 2015–2018—without a second thought—was go out to theaters, cinemas, concert halls, and sports arenas, meet friends in restaurants and bars, and take vacations to wherever we could afford to go. During that time, we stepped out en masse to see the much-anticipated new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens (2015), which reunited the cast of the original trilogy 32 years after Return of the Jedi. It was a different sequel, however, that made the most money in 2015—but then Jurassic World was released in June, whereas Star Wars didn’t arrive until December. The rest of the blockbusters of the 2015–2018 period rather predictably leaned toward superhero-franchise installments, new Star Wars spin-offs, and animated children’s films, the latter being the sharpest and wittiest of the lot (see The Secret Life of Pets, Moana, Despicable Me 3, The Incredibles 2, etc.). Clubs, bars, teenage bedrooms, and iPod earbuds blasted Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” a few hits from Justin Bieber, and 30-odd singles by Ed Sheeran. (OK, maybe not that many.) Meanwhile, the New England Patriots twice won the Super Bowl (2015 and 2017); the Denver Broncos were champions in 2016 and the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Patriots in 2018. In the UK, underdogs Leicester City beat odds of 5,000–1 to win soccer’s Premier League in 2016.
Meanwhile, pharma found itself in President Trump’s bad book. From before he took office he was promising to bring down “out of control” drug prices; he continued to attack the industry’s reputation for most of his presidency. While enduring this unwelcome attention, pharma and biotech nevertheless advanced with innovations and breakthroughs, especially in cancer. Results in 2019 showed that 23.2% of patients with previously untreated non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who were taking Merck’s Keytruda—approved by FDA for this condition in 2016—were still alive at the five-year mark. In 2017, Novartis gained approval for Kymriah, the first chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy (CAR-T) for the treatment of patients up to age 25 years with B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Gilead Sciences, through its Kite Pharma subsidiary, followed quickly with approval for Yescarta, a CAR-T therapy for adult patients with relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma. Results for Kymriah showed an 83% remission rate after three months in patients who did not respond to standard treatments, while Yescarta induced remission in 72% of patients with a rare form of blood cancer. In 2018, Bayer’s larotrectinib (Vitrakvi) was approved. Long-term data on Vitrakvi later confirmed a sustained clinical benefit of greater than four years in patients with TRK fusion cancer, regardless of tumor type and age. President Trump’s complaint that pharma was “getting away with murder” seemed somewhat at odds with these findings.
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.