Over the past two months, the United States has been united in one common focus: the coronavirus. From manufacturing COVID-19 tests to developing new vaccines, the medical industry has committed unprecedented resources into the fight against the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, the sudden and unexpected attention placed on COVID-19 caused many other medical projects to grind to a halt, including clinical trials for diseases and treatments unrelated to the coronavirus.
Research on cancer, stroke, dementia, and other critical diseases has been stalled. “It’s a whole cascade of effects occurring here that is really interrupting the ability of patients to obtain treatment in clinical trials,” explained Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Hundreds of Clinical Research Trials Suspended
At least 400 clinical trials and studies have been suspended since March 1 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly 25% of them were for cancer treatment, affecting as many as 200,000 participants.
“A lot of these people have waited a long time to get into a clinical trial,” says Dr. Lindsay McNair, a chief medical officer for WIRB-Copernicus Group. “To finally be accepted into a clinical trial, only to have it cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, has been devastating for these people.”
Rene Roach, for example, hoped to qualify for a colorectal cancer clinical trial in late March. As a stage IV cancer patient, Roach has few treatment methods available. She was counting on the clinical trial to succeed where other therapies have failed in the past. Now she’s forced to continue chemo.
“It’s buying time. But how much time is that? I don’t know,” she says. “And so if this stops working, what else do I have?”
New Drugs May Take Longer to Hit the Market
According to Ken Kaitlin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, this domino effect will cause a delay in new drugs hitting the market. “If you’re hoping and praying for a brand-new drug, likely you will have to wait longer than expected.”
It’s not just the suspended trials that will cause delays. Even the clinical trials that have continued to run throughout the COVID-19 crisis have experienced obstacles. For example, many hospitals were forced to close their radiology suites, which makes it nearly impossible to perform the biopsies needed to determine whether clinical trial treatments worked for patients.
“It creates a real conundrum,” explains Schilsky. “Data from many studies that were eagerly anticipated is going to take a lot longer to develop. It’s going to just slow down the whole cancer research enterprise.”