Is Your Institution Prepared to Identify Exempt Research?
The disruption of clinical research as a result of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Virtually everything about developing protocols and starting clinical trials has been upturned. In some cases, trials have been closed indefinitely. Others have been delayed or streamlined. Much of the interaction, such as IRB review meetings, has been shifted online, decentralized or outsourced to free up resources in the fight against the pandemic.
Anecdotally, we have observed a change in the types of protocols submitted for IRB review, as many investigator-initiated trials have pivoted toward better understanding of COVID-19. At BRANY, we have seen an influx of exempt research — protocols that pose minimal risk and fit into pre-specified categories that are exempt from IRB review. This type of research still requires a determination that it meets criteria for exemption. The regulations do not specify who at an institution may determine that research is exempt under 45 CFR 46.101(b). However, the U.S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) recommends that, because of the potential for conflict of interest, investigators not be given the authority to make an independent determination that human subjects research is exempt. The IRB is often tasked with making exempt determinations.
Institutions should develop standards and procedures for determining research is exempt. However, this can be complex and complicated as exempt categories must be interpreted for specific situations. In developing these policies, OHRP recommends the following:
• Develop standardized mechanisms for collecting sufficient information to make the determination. This can include checklists, standard operating procedures and requirements for training.
• Policies should clearly define who has authority to make these determinations and provide sufficient training for those people.
• Define categories for exemption and use them in making the determination. This is useful in case of audit, but also helps the institution to establish policies.
• Provide clear guidance to investigators about federal and institutional guidelines.
This last point is crucial, as there is no federal mandate that anyone other than investigator make the determination that a research study is exempt. Some institutions may be tempted to expedite research and avoid delays by allowing investigators to make these determinations. The provision of detailed checklists, or the use of a guided protocol writing tool such as ProtocolBuilder, may help the investigator in these cases. The OHRP, and we at BRANY, strongly advise that someone other than the investigator make this determination in order to avoid possible conflict of interest.
Research institutions and academic medical centers must continue to adjust to the rapidly shifting landscape brought on by COVID-19. Resources have focused on understanding the pandemic and have been funneled toward both interventional and observational research in this area. This has resulted in a possible increase in investigator-initiated studies that may be considered exempt. Institutions may need to review their policies and procedures for making these determinations to ensure they are both in compliance and, more importantly, continue to protect human subjects.