Andrew Halayko, PhD

In its second virtual year, the annual meeting of the American Thoracic Society (ATS) is dominated by coronavirus: literally, in the form of a number of sessions, but inadvertently, too, as the pandemic has forced the organizing committee and staff to think hard about how to recreate the collegial atmosphere of an in-person meeting within a virtual format.

Having run a virtual meeting in 2020 on short notice, the ATS International Conference Committee has learned a lot of lessons, said committee chair Andrew Halayko, PhD. “The ability for registrants and attendees to network was something that’s sorely lacking in a virtual setting and is, in fact, probably the most valued part of a face-to-face meeting. So, a lot of our efforts this year have aimed at trying to overcome that void,” said Halayko, who is a professor of physiology and pathophysiology at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

Efforts to bolster networking include Meet the Expert sessions, which will strongly resemble Sunrise Seminars and Meet the Professor sessions of previous in-person meetings. Each is a 1-hour session with one or more speakers with a 20-minute presentation followed by 40 minutes of interaction, and an audience capped at 30. “It’s truly a live component,” said Halayko.

The team has also added a networking lounge, where attendees can self-organize around shared interests and create breakout rooms for Zoom chats, or poster presenters could band together to discuss each other’s work along with interested attendees. Those efforts will be supported by a built-in messaging system.

“We’ve done it deliberately to be available at any time in an impromptu manner. Linked to all of the abstracts, and all of the presentations that are in the conference, is a capacity to click on a name and message with that author,” Halayko said.

Some sessions have a “highlighted session” designation, indicating that the International Conference Committee deemed them to be of broad interest, were highly ranked by peer review, and were topical or cutting edge. These sessions can be found using the “browse by topic” feature.

Among the most popular offerings are the Clinical Year in Review sessions, which feature expert summaries of advances in clinical care and management. This year’s topics include pediatric and nursing.

Focus on COVID-19

To no one’s surprise, the science of the meeting will focus on COVID-19. There will be sessions exploring the pathobiology of the virus, and a newer focus on the molecular and pathophysiological elements of long-haul illness. Other presentations will look at vaccine equity and vaccine hesitancy on a global scale.

COVID-19 will also feature in a session on new clinical trials. It will include two trials of biologics for the treatment of asthma, one in adults and one in a pediatric population, along with a trial of monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19. Other sessions will look at rehabilitation strategies for the long-term sequelae of COVID-19.

Despite COVID’s outsized influence over the past year, conference organizers didn’t want it to completely dominate sessions. To address that, they sought input from multiple programming committees to limit the amount of redundancy in COVID programming and leave plenty of room for other specialties. “We can’t get lost (in COVID content),” said Halayko.

Yet there’s no getting around the “elephant in the room,” as he called it.

A Chair’s Symposium that Halayko developed will look at all elements of the COVID-19 vaccine effort, from development and manufacture, safety, and efficacy, to the potential consequences of inequitable distribution of vaccines around the world. One talk will highlight the potential for a pan-coronavirus vaccine to head off future epidemics.

Beyond COVID-19

But the conference is about much more than COVID, said Halayko. Sleep medicine will get a lot of attention. One session will look at associations between sleep disorders and neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. Another session will examine sleep-related hypoxemia.

Health equity will also be addressed. “The issue of health disparities, racism, and gender equality in health provision and access, and career advancement is a strong theme that ATS as an organization is committed to addressing. There are a handful of sessions that address this issue with international leaders,” Halayko said. The ATS President’s Symposium will directly address the issue by asking whether racial and ethnic disparities in respiratory health can be eliminated. Another session will include discussion of race as a variable in pediatric studies.

There will be presentations on the effects of climate change and pollution on pulmonary health, and talks about biological and molecular mechanisms of diseases like asthma, and the pathogenesis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The Recognition for Scientific Accomplishments will highlight abstracts that were selected by the ACS awards committee. “It’s highly competitive, so to be in the top four of that list is really very impressive. It’s usually among the best sessions every year at ATS, because it’s so diverse, and all of them by eminent leaders who are actively doing research today,” said Halayko.

The meeting’s offerings will be extensive, including 84 live symposia, and another 42 that will be available on-demand; 25 minisymposia, which will feature 3-minute talks and live Q&A; and 142 thematic poster sessions. Nearly 4000 abstracts will be available through the conference.

“I think it’s going to be fantastic. But looking back, I realize how perhaps naive and foolhardy we were to think we could actually do it. I cannot state strongly enough how the ATS staff from top to bottom has enabled this to happen,” Halayko said.

Halayko has reported no relevant financial relationships.

American Thoracic Society (ATS) 2021 International Conference. May 14-19, 2021.

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