SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The pandemic has put a pause on many procedures at hospitals. Routine care not related to COVID-19's been postponed. Many elective surgeries have to be rescheduled. Hundreds of clinical trials of experimental treatments for a range of diseases are now on hold. NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin joins us. Sydney, thanks for being with us.
SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
SIMON: What's going on with clinical trials for conditions that aren't COVID-19 or related to the coronavirus?
LUPKIN: Well, we've identified more than 400 clinical trials that have been stopped since the beginning of March because of the outbreak. About a quarter of these studies were for cancer treatments. Others are for diabetes, heart disease and dementia - all kinds of conditions. All told, these studies involved as many as 200,000 patients, though it's hard to know precisely how many were active in the studies at the time they were halted. Also, there are even more trials that are still going but aren't taking new patients. And it's likely that there are many other studies whose status has changed but that haven't been updated in the federal database that we analyzed.
SIMON: Why stop studies?
LUPKIN: There are two big reasons clinical trials are being suspended right now. One is that the extra visits to health care facilities for study participants aren't considered worth the risk of catching coronavirus. Another is that the hospitals and clinics don't have staff available to continue running the trials because of the added burden of COVID-19.
SIMON: Now, Sydney, this has got to be heartbreaking news for people who are ill and pin hopes on a clinical trial.
LUPKIN: Oh, these stoppages, they're devastating for them. For people with cancer and other serious conditions, a clinical trial may be their only access to treatment, or an experimental drug could be their best shot at knocking cancer out after other available therapies have failed.
I talked with Rene Roach (ph), who was hoping to get started in a clinical trial for her stage 4 colorectal cancer this spring. Her doctors thought it looked really promising. But a few weeks ago, she learned it was put on hold because of COVID-19.
RENE ROACH: We're out here dying, you know, from cancer. And just to have things stop is not really fair.
LUPKIN: Rene knows everyone is doing the best they can, but this is a particularly tough time to be a cancer patient. By the time trials start back up, Rene and others may no longer be eligible to participate. Their illnesses may have progressed too far.
SIMON: Sydney, is there a way to keep these studies going?
LUPKIN: So people who run clinical trials are doing what they can. The Food and Drug Administration has published guidance on how to make these studies more flexible. Some researchers are able to send pharmaceuticals in the mail or rely on telemedicine, for instance. But that's not always an option. Some studies require infusions, blood draws and biopsies.
SIMON: What can these patients do? What's ahead for them?
LUPKIN: Even for those who can continue their studies, it might mean going for treatment or follow-up by themselves to minimize coronavirus risk. I talked with a lung cancer patient who, for the first time, went for a drug infusion session by herself. Her husband wasn't allowed to come with her and comfort her, she said. For others, it might mean going back to a treatment that didn't work that well and just waiting.
Unfortunately, we don't know when suspended trials will start back up again. The best thing these patients in this situation can do is just stay in touch with the trial organizers.
SIMON: NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much.
LUPKIN: You bet.
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