Conducting cancer trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic


More than three-quarters of cancer clinical research programs have experienced operational changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) during a recent webinar.

Randall A. Oyer, MD, of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, Philadelphia

Dr. Randall A. Oyer

The webinar included insights into how some cancer research programs have adapted to the pandemic, a review of guidance for conducting cancer trials during this time, and a discussion of how the cancer research landscape may be affected by COVID-19 going forward.

The webinar was led by Randall A. Oyer, MD, president of the ACCC and medical director of the oncology program at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in Pennsylvania.

The impact of COVID-19 on cancer research

Dr. Oyer observed that planning and implementation for COVID-19–related illness at U.S. health care institutions has had a predictable effect of limiting patient access and staff availability for nonessential services.

Coronavirus-related exposure and/or illness has relegated cancer research to a lower-level priority. As a result, ACCC institutions have made adjustments in their cancer research programs, including moving clinical research coordinators off-campus and deploying them in clinical areas.

New clinical trials have not been opened. In some cases, new accruals have been halted, particularly for registry, prevention, and symptom control trials.

Standards that have changed and those that have not

Guidance documents for conducting clinical trials during the pandemic have been developed by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program and Central Institutional Review Board, and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Extramural Research. Industry sponsors and parent institutions of research programs have also disseminated guidance.

Among other topics, guidance documents have addressed:

  • How COVID-19-related protocol deviations will be judged at monitoring visits and audits
  • Missed office visits and endpoint evaluations
  • Providing investigational oral medications to patients via mail and potential issues of medication unavailability
  • Processes for patients to have interim visits with providers at external institutions, including providers who may not be personally engaged in or credentialed for the research trial
  • Potential delays in submitting protocol amendments for institutional review board (IRB) review
  • Recommendations for patients confirmed or suspected of having a coronavirus infection.

Dr. Oyer emphasized that patient safety must remain the highest priority for patient management, on or off study. He advised continuing investigational therapy when potential benefit from treatment is anticipated and identifying alternative methods to face-to-face visits for monitoring and access to treatment.

Dr. Oyer urged programs to:

  • Maintain good clinical practice standards
  • Consult with sponsors and IRBs when questions arise but implement changes that affect patient safety prior to IRB review if necessary
  • Document all deviations and COVID-19 related adaptations in a log or spreadsheet in anticipation of future questions from sponsors, monitors, and other entities.


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