ASCO: Return to in-person 'zoo that it always was,' with added COVID challenges—and bad shoes

While reveling in the human interaction of being back in person, attendees of the 2022 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago—which wraps its fifth and final day today—were also faced with the somewhat daunting realization that maybe we don’t quite remember how to be back on-site.

It’s as if suddenly everyone was launched into a new world, jumping down from their small Zoom box and landing shakily on the ASCO floor.  

“I'm a little rusty,” Scot Ebbinghaus, M.D., vice president of global clinical development for Merck & Co.’s Research Laboratories, told Fierce Biotech. “I was trying to get an Uber over here yesterday, and I realized I hadn't put my credit card in for a year and a half.” 

The conference felt almost indistinguishable when compared to past in-person ASCOs, most attendees said, throwing out estimates that around 85% to 90% of the average number of participants returned this year. In 2019—the most recent ASCO to be hosted in person–42,000 attendees gathered in the Windy City for the conference. Though ASCO isn’t releasing official attendance numbers until the event concludes, 90% of 2019 attendees puts us at a ballpark 37,800 attendees for this year.

“It kinda feels like the zoo that it always was,” Chris Arendt, Ph.D., head of oncology cell therapy and therapeutic area unit, research and development at Takeda, said with a laugh. 

For most, it was the first major meeting back in person in two and a half years. After such a long time wearing masks and social distancing, being onsite was almost an out-of-body experience, said Teresa Bitetti, president of Takeda’s global oncology business unit. 

A new addition to this year’s ASCO: a palpable energy driven by the giddy excitement of reconnecting. Everyone was ecstatic to be on-site—most bore huge grins, or most unmasked attendees did, at least. Based on this reporter's observations, about 65% of attendees at any given time chose not to wear a mask, while 35% opted for a face covering. In general, though not as a rule, the majority of ASCO members were unmasked, while media members, communications and company reps, and staff of the McCormick Place meeting venue were typically masked. 

The contradictions of masking at an all-day conference became clear around meal times and were not lost on Alexander Spira, M.D., Ph.D., who serves as co-director of the Virginia Cancer Specialists Research Institute and director of the thoracic and phase 1 program at Johns Hopkins. Masking is fairly ineffective when eating next to the people you were just wearing a mask next to, he said. 

While vaccine verification was required to enter, the majority of the COVID-19 onus fell to each individual. ASCO, for its part, tried (futilely) to help attendees navigate the murky waters. Upon registration, attendees could choose to don a red pin (keep a 6-foot distance), a yellow pin (prefer minimal physical contact, elbow bumps okay), or a green one (handshakes and hugs welcome). The idea receives an “A” for effort, but an absolute “F” for execution and effectiveness—not a single person wore them. 

“What buttons?” Takeda’s Bitetti asked me, a sentiment echoed by most.

So it appears to be business as usual … sort of. One thing that quickly became clear about the new normal is that no one is used to it. Most struggled to find their footing, both figuratively and literally. After Day One, high-heeled ankles were armored in Band-Aids. People forgot what it was like to wear formal shoes for an extended period of time—or even just shoes in general. 

While side conversations and seeing people in 3D were welcome aspects missing from years of virtual meetings, a current of unease lay beneath the excitement.

“There’s moments when you’re sitting in the big meeting rooms and things go whizzing by,” Takeda’s Arendt said. “I have to recalibrate how I listen to things in an ASCO meeting because I don’t have the ability to pause the video. I feel like I'm training some new muscles.” 

GlaxoSmithKline’s new global head of oncology development Hesham Abdullah forgot about his tendency to run a little late, a habit he had kicked for virtual meet-ups. Now, the leader, shaking his head good-naturedly, admitted that maybe the habit wasn’t actually gone after all.  

Meanwhile, Ahsan Arozullah, M.D., senior vice president and head of development therapeutic areas at Astellas, a local Chicagoan, forgot which parking lot to go to. He had to reorient himself with McCormick Place, where the conference is hosted, which is no easy feat: The convention center is the biggest in North America. 

Matthew Price, executive vice president, chief operating officer and co-founder of Promontory Therapeutics, said he was surprised at how happy and willing he was to shake hands, adding that he would have never done so 18 months ago. 

“So maybe there’s a ‘new’ new normal,” Price said. Just when we were learning the rules of the old new normal. 

Price also expressed concern about the large gathering, adjusting his mask while referencing anecdotes he’d heard about attendees returning from in-person conferences and bringing back COVID-19 to their patients or colleagues. 

For some, the risk just wasn't worth it. Alan Sandler, M.D., president and head of global development of oncology at biotech Zai Lab, said he had every intention of attending this year—he’s gone to every in-person ASCO conference since becoming a resident in the early 1990s. But when he realized the conference was right before his youngest son’s college graduation, he didn’t think he would be able to forgive himself if he tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the graduation. 

No matter what the new (new) normal entails, going back in person is … weird. But the oncology sector is taking it in stride, with leaders already raring to go for the next ASCO.

“See you next year—same time, same place,” several attendees said Monday. I’ll be there—in my comfiest pair of flats.