Hundreds of clinical trials under threat from virus shutdown

Quarantined patients, laboratories in lockdown and huge drop in charity income may cause drug trials to fail, warn research leaders

April 16, 2020
Source: istock

Hundreds of clinical trials that could lead to life-saving treatments might have to be abandoned because of the coronavirus lockdown, medical research charities have warned.

While much of the research mothballed as a result of the Covid-19 crisis is likely to be salvaged when laboratories reopen, there are grave concerns that many of the UK’s 6,000 clinical trials might be unable to continue because test results from sick patients, now confined to their homes, cannot be recorded or because medical charities cannot afford to continue their funding.

Drawing on a survey of 87 of its 145 members, the UK’s Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) estimated that 126,000 participants in charity-funded clinical trials are now unable to continue taking part, with 40 per cent of charities stating that half their clinical trials might be unable to restart.

With nearly all research activity paused, the lockdown is likely to cost at least £100 million if it continues for six months, according to 54 charities that were able to estimate cost extensions, the AMRC says. “There is a real question on whether many clinical trials can be rescued,” said Aisling Burnand, the body’s chief executive.

“In some cases, a clinical trial is a patient’s only option for treatment or palliative care, and that option is now gone,” she added.

Scrapping research projects would also be a blow to researchers, said Ms Burnand. “People who go into medical research want to make a difference to people’s lives, so it will be challenging to spend so much time on a project, get close to patients and see it all evaporate,” she said.

Medical research charities, which spend £1.1 billion a year in universities and employ 17,000 researchers, are predicting a huge downturn in income. Three-quarters of AMRC members have forecasted a drop of 25 per cent or more, and a third expect their income to fall by at least 40 per cent, leading many to suspend calls for new research.

Cancer Research UK has said it will cut research funding by £44 million this year as it faces a 25 per cent fall in income.

David Montgomery, head of research at Prostate Cancer UK, which spends about £7 million a year, said a “huge amount” of its funding came from mass participation events held in early summer that had now been cancelled.

“We’ve made the decision to stop funding future research and continue to fund current studies,” said Dr Montgomery, who added that he could not guarantee that all of his charity’s 54 current projects would be completed. Some research involving animal tests had already been lost, he said.

Universities will have to consider furloughing charity-funded researchers using the government’s scheme that allows them to access 80 per cent of their income, up to £2,500 a month, said Dr Montgomery. Longer-term state aid was also required to help research projects that have been disrupted by the lockdown reach completion in coming years, he added.

David Dexter, deputy director of research at Parkinson’s UK, which spends about £5 million a year on research, said he expected a 35 per cent drop in income, leading the charity to defer grant calls.

“The big question is keeping our current research going – we have 36 large research projects, but all the research institutes and hospitals running them are closed,” he explained.

“We have 3,000 patients who are self-isolating as they are in a high-risk group, but not having assessments and measurements in this interval could have a major effect on trials and even cause them to fail – some have been running for years,” he said. “In laboratories, some complex animal materials have been maturing for 12 months – if you miss the right point [for testing], you cannot get that back.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Hundreds of clinical trials under threat as labs shut and funds dry up

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