Pharma's edition of the 2020 story, as told by Fierce readers

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Just one story in our top 10 best-read this year didn’t concern itself with COVID-19. (Fototocam/iStock/Getty Images)

To look back at Fierce Pharma’s top stories of 2020 is to see the COVID-19 pandemic in miniature.

The early desperation for treatments that led to hydroxychloroquine hype. The first authorized antiviral in Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir—and the debate about how that drug should be priced (and how much money it might bring in for its maker). The rush to repurpose approved drugs for COVID-19 treatment. The preliminary hints about vaccine efficacy all the way through the vaccine politics that dominated the autumn.

The early hydroxychloroquine frenzy topped the list. When the New York lockdown was new and drugmakers were scrambling for any hint of a weapon, news that the malaria drug might work against the SARS-CoV-2 virus electrified the industry and public alike. And when Novartis, Mylan and Teva quickly agreed to supply “tens of millions” of tablets, more than 350,000 people read the story. Almost as many tuned into a story about Bayer’s chloroquine donation.

Right up there with them was Merck CEO Ken Frazier’s bubble-bursting warning about over-hyping the as-yet unproven vaccines. His company’s contenders are coming up behind several others on the path to market, but it wasn’t just vested interest that had him cautioning against promising too much, too soon. He pointed to distribution hurdles, which we’re now seeing in real time. And he worried that the promise of an immunization might make people too complacent to practice social distancing and wear masks—though, as it turned out, plenty of people needed no encouragement to flout those recommendations.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot was suggesting his company’s shot might only protect people for one year—and though we now have some data on that vaccine, we don’t yet know whether that assessment still applies. And by the fall, with the presidential campaign in full swing, the best-read stories spotlighted the vaccine data debate. Will they or won’t they have vaccine data before the election?

That was the first question, but it got much more complicated quickly. Soon, citing political pressure on the FDA and a public skeptical of vaccines after the Operation Warp Speed R&D and manufacturing push, experts lobbied Pfizer to wait until late November to file its shot for an FDA authorization. In the end, the data weren’t ready until just after the election anyway—but, as we all know now, that gave the company and its partner BioNTech time to win emergency approvals and dispatch millions of doses on two continents.

Just one story in our top 10 best-read this year didn’t concern itself with COVID-19. Instead, it was the latest recall of metformin, a standard diabetes drug, for suspected contamination with the current bane of pharma manufacturing, NDMA.

But through the pandemic, Fierce Pharma and Fierce Biotech have been publishing the usual biopharma news and features, too—and in case you’d like to leaven up your reading, try dipping into our special reports collection. You’ll find, for example, in-depth coverage of the top drug launches and highest-paid CEOs—and a peek ahead at the new Big Pharma in 2026.

Thank you for reading along with us this year as the pharma business became everyone’s business. Our daily editions will be on hiatus until Jan. 4, but we’ll cover the big news online at FiercePharma.com. Have a safe and happy holiday season, however and wherever you celebrate.