Restarting Research Projects and Programs

The COVID-19 pandemic had significant impacts on clinical trials and research programs. According to researchers at Penn State, over 80 percent of clinical trials were suspended between March 1 and April 26, 2020, mostly due to the pandemic. The impact was more substantial for government or academic-funded studies than for sponsored trials, according to their study, which was published in March 2021. Among other concerns, researchers cited the challenges associated with recruiting and following up with patients.

Research leaders assembled task forces and started planning for the re-start of clinical and lab research as early as last summer. With unpredictable surges in cases in different states, the restart of research has not been uniform. This has required a high degree of flexibility among leaders and staff.

As vaccination programs roll out across the country, medical center campuses are updating their return-to-campus policies to accommodate the shifting landscapes. Physical distancing, use of masks and encouraging staff to continue remote meetings are still part of many campus policies. Each institution has to assess risk based on local risk factors and patient populations. Research professionals must constantly revisit processes and procedures for starting or continuing clinical trials programs, as well.

For industry sponsored studies, many trials shifted to remote monitoring and implemented telemedicine visits to minimize exposure to the coronavirus.  Most institutions prohibited sponsor representatives from conducting in person site initiation visits and clinical trial monitoring.  These restrictions are also beginning to be lifted.

Evaluate and Re-Allocate Resources

Campus closures were disruptive for staff as they often shifted their focus to supporting COVID activities on medical campuses. Some staff may return, others not. Turnover among clinical research coordinators was already high before the pandemic, and uncertainty about the future may have exacerbated this.

Recruiting and training new clinical research coordinators can be time-consuming and challenging under current circumstances. Research teams may need flexible staffing, or to ramp up activities quickly with limited staff. In these cases, it may be prudent to consider outsourcing much of the administrative and compliance work associated with clinical research.

Managing the many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic this past year has also depleted financial resources at many institutions. Institutions have implemented hiring freezes because funding is scarce.  Budgets for 2021/2022 are being cut all around including areas such as research administration.

Another question to consider: as restrictions are lifted to allow more clinical trials to begin again, and to open organizations for in person monitoring and site initiation visits will staff be available to support these initiatives?

Review Protocols for Deviations and Violations

It is important to understand the difference between a protocol deviation versus a violation, as there are implications for reporting requirements and IRB review.

Generally speaking, a protocol deviation occurs when, without significant consequences, the activities on a study diverge from the Institutional Review Board-approved protocol. For example, a patient may have missied a visit window because s/he is traveling.

A protocol violation is more serious. It refers to a divergence from the protocol that materially:

  • reduces the quality or completeness of the data
  • makes the Informed Consent Form inaccurate, or
  • impacts a subject’s safety, rights, or welfare

If there are changes to the protocol, then IRBs may need to review updated patient consent forms. Additionally, some institutions are implementing e-consents and other technologies.

Communication with participates goes beyond consents. As return-to-campus protocols are modified, staff must advise research participants of any changes. For example, if a study moved to telehealth visits, and is now re-opening to in person visits, participants should receive the campus COVID guidelines prior to their next visit.  Coordinators may need to communicate with participants regarding options that were implemented in response to COVID-19, and whether they will still be options as in person visits resume.

Identify Potential Budget Implications

Changes in protocols, methods of obtaining consents or conducting follow-up visits are just three ways in which a study budget can be impacted. Every change or accommodation to updated policies and procedures should be checked against the budget to ensure accuracy and appropriate reimbursement.

Experts are still debating what the future of work — and therefore, the future of clinical research — may look like post-pandemic. Regardless of the short- and long-term implications, it is essential for research staff to remain diligent and flexible in overseeing and updating procedures and policies.