The pandemic has pushed medical research into remote Trials

After her teenage daughter tested positive for the novel coronavirus this past January, Jennifer Scruggs got to work disinfecting surfaces in their home in Bethpage, N.Y. Then she noticed that she couldn’t smell the Lysol she was spraying. “Uh-oh—this wasn’t a good sign,” she recalls thinking. “So I got tested, and sure enough, I was positive for COVID.”

Scruggs, an administrative employee at Northwell Health, a network of hospitals and clinics based in Long Island, N.Y., heard that her employer was recruiting nonhospitalized COVID patients for a clinical trial. The goal was to find out whether famotidine, the active ingredient in the heartburn drug Pepcid, could reduce the severity of the infection. Eager to contribute to science, Scruggs was thrilled to learn she could participate without leaving home. Everything needed for the monthlong study—pills, instruments to measure her respiratory capacity and oxygen levels, a scale, a fitness tracker and an iPad—was delivered to her doorstep. Readings from the devices were transmitted via Bluetooth to the iPad, which conveyed them to the research team. Once a week a phlebotomist wearing protective garb arrived at her home to take blood samples. “Honestly,” Scruggs says, “they made it very easy.”

In the early months of the pandemic, medical research was radically disrupted for safety reasons. Nearly 6,000 clinical trials unrelated to COVID were stopped during the first five months of 2020, about twice the usual number, according to one analysis. But the outbreak has also accelerated a shift toward digital and remote research methods that make participation easier for patients and make data collection more efficient for scientists. Across diverse disciplines, study designs are being revamped to bring the trial to the patient rather than vice versa. Scientists also hope to show that sluggish processes that have long discouraged people from participating in cutting-edge research can be safely streamlined for a postpandemic era. “One lesson of COVID is that fast is possible,” says cardiologist John H. Alexander, a senior faculty member and researcher at Duke University’s Clinical Research Institute.


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