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Drug trial specialists see coronavirus-fueled spike in demand for virtual services

By Saumya Joseph
·3 min read
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By Saumya Joseph

April 17 (Reuters) - Clinical trial service providers report a spike in demand for virtual trials as pharmaceutical companies try to prevent the coronavirus outbreak from derailing their drug rollouts.

With many trial participants isolating themselves at home, drugmakers are forced to choose whether to skip scheduled patient visits, delay or even cancel ongoing trials.

To limit disruption, drug regulators in the United States https://www.fda.gov/media/136238/download and the European https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/files/eudralex/vol-10/guidanceclinicaltrials_covid19_en.pdf Union have recommended switching to virtual patient visits instead of in-person monitoring.

The outbreak has prompted drugmakers including Pfizer Inc , Eli Lilly and Co and Bristol Myers Squibb to suspend several trials, which could hurt future revenues and limit patient access to experimental treatments.

New patient enrollment in the United States, Italy and Spain more than halved during March compared to last year, according to Dassault Systemes' clinical trials unit Medidata.

To mitigate the impact, clinical trial service providers are boosting their offerings in virtual care - an area that has been slow to catch on.

Lower costs, convenience and a greater pool of participants have led to a gradual shift to virtual trials in the past few years, said Anthony Costello, senior vice president at Medidata's digital health services unit.

"The coronavirus effect has just sort of jacked all of that up on steroids."

Medidata has conducted nearly 20,000 trials globally with over 1,400 clients and partners, including Bristol Myers, Novartis AG and Johnson & Johnson, and provides a range of services that could help reduce in-person interaction through electronic data collection and home deliveries of drugs.

In the last few weeks of March, the company said it had received over 30 new requests from its clients including pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations, related to assistance with remote clinical monitoring.

Most drugmakers had not considered shifting to a virtual model, as each change to trials comes with an almost half-million-dollar price tag, until the outbreak forced their hand, said Harry Glorikian, chief executive of Transparency Life Sciences, which specializes in virtual trials.

Since last month, the company said it has received dozens of inquiries from pharma companies about remote trials compared with three to five monthly requests prior to the outbreak.

Most drugmakers are now looking to adopt a hybrid approach that would make parts of the study remote, including home visits for sample collection, smartphone apps or wearable gadgets to collect measurements and home drug deliveries, said Josh Rose, head of virtual trial operations at IQVIA Holdings Inc.

The life sciences firm has seen "tremendous interest" for its services and has begun reconfiguring its technology to implement it in clinical trials within a week instead of the usual six to eight weeks, said Rose.

Looking beyond the current outbreak, Jefferies analyst Michael Yee said cost benefits could lead drugmakers to make parts of trials virtual but expected that to be a slow process.

However, WCG, a provider which has made virtual trials a significant part of its business prior to the outbreak, considers heightened interest in such services a potential game-changer.

"COVID-19 could be the single greatest disruptive force that the clinical trial process has ever seen," its chief commercial officer Nicholas Slack said. (Reporting by Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru Editing by Ankur Banerjee and Tomasz Janowski)