A Light at the End of the Tunnel

By: Sarah Scudder

By now, most companies are well into planning for 2021, and this will undoubtedly be the most unique and challenging planning season that most business leaders have ever faced. For the past nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented level of uncertainty. The trajectory of the pandemic has been highly unpredictable, with new cases rising and falling like a roller coaster.

There is, however, good news for business leaders as they make plans for the coming year. Several recent medical/scientific developments suggest that the fog of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic will soon begin to lift.

In November alone:

  • Both Eli Lilly and Regeneron received Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) from the FDA for their COVID-19 monoclonal antibody drugs. Clinical trial results showed that these drugs reduce hospitalizations for COVID-19 in high-risk patients when given early in the course of the disease.
  • Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna reported results from the Phase 3 clinical trials of their COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The results showed that both vaccines are about 95% effective at preventing COVID-19. Pfizer and BioNTech filed for an EUA for their vaccine on November 20th, and by the time you are reading this, Moderna will have probably filed its EUA request.
  • On November 23rd, AstraZeneca and Oxford University reported results from late-stage clinical trials (conducted in the UK and Brazil) of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The clinical trials tested two dosing regimens, one of which was shown to be 90% effective.

These developments won’t significantly affect the pandemic’s course over the balance of this year, but they are likely to have a major impact in 2021. They allow business leaders to create planning scenarios that envision a return to more “normal” business conditions in the coming year. In essence, they give us confidence that there is finally a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.

For planning purposes, the big issues now are: How quickly will the trajectory of the pandemic improve, and when will more normal business conditions return?

A recent article by McKinsey & Company—“When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End?”—provides a realistic assessment of these critical issues. The article’s authors identified two “end points” for the pandemic.

  • An epidemiological end point that will occur when a society achieves herd immunity. Of course, most countries will rely on a vaccine to achieve herd immunity.
  • The second end point is a gradual transition to a form of normalcy. The article states that this transition will begin when “almost all aspects of social and economic life can resume without fear of ongoing mortality . . . or long-term health consequences related to COVID-19.”

For planning purposes, the most important part of the article is the timing of the two end points. The authors wrote:

“In the United States and most other developed countries, the epidemiological end point is most likely to be achieved in the third or fourth quarter of 2021, with the potential to transition to normalcy sooner, possibly in the first or second quarter of 2021.” (Emphasis added)

Some marketing and procurement leaders may be disheartened by McKinsey’s “most likely” scenario, but I view it as fairly positive. If McKinsey’s analysis is accurate—and the recent medical developments make it very realistic—we could see the early signs of a return to more normal business conditions within the next 4 to 6 months.