Clinical trials need participants — and the clock is ticking

In April, two clinical trials in China testing the antiviral drugs, Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine, reportedly shut down early. The reason? Not enough eligible patients to properly complete the trial.

The researchers needed people who had received a positive lab test confirming they had COVID-19. They needed to be hospitalized with fever and cough and had to be identified within less than eight days of having those symptoms. There weren’t enough of them to finish the work.

It’s a strange paradox for researchers around the world right now, including here in Canada. We are steadily tackling down the disease. Public health measures enforcing physical distancing, self-isolation and quarantine are proving to be effective. This is terrific news.

But it also means that the pool of potential Canadians who can participate in certain clinical trials is shrinking by the day. It’s a race against time to identify people who are willing to contribute to this important research and onboard them quickly. There are currently dozens of approved COVID-19 clinical trials in Canada looking for thousands and thousands of participants.

Recruitment for clinical trials is a notoriously hard exercise in Canada at the best of times. During a pandemic outbreak it becomes a mad scramble against a very loud ticking clock.

Our research community in this country is collaborative and supportive and endlessly in pursuit of the greater good. Our researchers were able to very quickly isolate the coronavirus in Canada, sharing that discovery with researchers in an early step to pave the way for a vaccine. More than 80 Canadian research sites are participating in the WHO Solidarity Trial which aims to consolidate the global effort. But there is also an ever-present element of competition. That’s just the nature of the work and the people who do it.

Competition is healthy. But where we need to level the playing field is in the recruitment process. That’s why researchers across the country are now collaborating to crowdsource Canadian participants through a web portal at Covidtrials.ca. The site allows people to securely register their information and then at the back-end it matches those people with trials that are seeking participants. It’s all overseen by a medical leadership of physicians and researchers from across Canada. More than 1,000 people have registered so far but there is much more work to do.

The only way we can ensure that our work to uncover treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 can move forward, and quickly, is by working together and engaging Canadians.

Here’s what people in our country need to know.

The current roster of trials is overwhelmingly looking for people who have received a positive COVID-19 test result. There is an urgency to referring these participants to trials because clinical testing of treatments relies on a pool of people who are sick right now.

But, as we move into testing potential vaccines as well, a larger pool of people who are healthy and may never have been exposed to the virus will also be needed. For Canadians who want to support and contribute to research — this is one important way to do that.

Just about everyone can and should register.

Here’s what’s at stake. With SARS, none of the experimental vaccines in development was proven to work or approved by health authorities before the crisis waned and interest and funding dried up.

The scope and scale of this pandemic is much more widespread, deadly and profound. There is no time to waste to find breakthroughs. Canadians who are willing to participate in clinical trials in this country need an easy way to put their hand up. And we need to work together to get the word out so they can do that now.

Dr. Ramy Saleh is the founder of the non-profit Covidtrials.ca and a practicing Medical Oncologist and researcher at the McGill University Health Center.

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