COVID-19 and Cancer Patients on Clinical Trials

If you are a patient currently on a clinical trial or a newly diagnosed patient considering a trial, you may be wondering how or if your clinical trial treatment could be affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Bassel El-Rayes, MD, Associate Director for Clinical Research at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, answers your questions about clinical trials in the current environment.

Should I continue on my clinical trial even if it might lower my immunity to infection and/or require me to make regular visits to the infusion center or Phase I Clinical Trials Unit?

Your care team at Winship is uniquely qualified to help you make treatment decisions that deliver the best outcomes, and in certain situations, those best outcomes are achieved through a clinical trial. As Georgia's NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, Winship has more than 300 active cancer clinical trials that involve therapeutic interventions.

For some patients, starting or continuing their clinical trials - even during the pandemic - is essential to their care and vital to achieving the best outcomes. For other patients, starting a clinical trial or continuing a trial can be safely delayed or paused without significantly impacting the progression of their cancer and/or changing their outcomes. Patients should talk with their care team to determine whether to continue, start or pause their participation in a clinical trial.

How can I continue my clinical trial yet limit significantly my in-facility appointments to minimize possible exposure to infection?

Participating in a clinical trial enables patients to receive the latest – and potentially most effective – treatment for their cancer. To ensure patient safety and to achieve the best outcomes, cancer patients on clinical trials are monitored more frequently than patients on standard therapies, and increased monitoring has traditionally occurred face-to-face with the care team in a cancer center. However, with the onset of COVID-19 and the need to decrease possible exposure to infection, experts from Winship and other NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers have worked to develop innovative alternatives for monitoring and assessing cancer patients on clinical trials.

Earlier in March, the US Food and Drug Administration enabled NCI comprehensive cancer centers like Winship the flexibility to monitor clinical trial patients remotely by conducting health assessments via virtual- and tele-visits. Such virtual visits give patients and their care teams access to each other and the data they need, but without requiring the cancer patient to come to the cancer center. Ask your Winship care team if virtual- and tele-visits are possible for you.

What precautions should I take when coming to Winship for my clinical trial treatments?

Here are several precautions to consider when receiving treatment:

  • If you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, contact your care team before you come to a Winship facility for your clinical trial treatment.
  • You – along with staff, patients and visitors – will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms at the entrances to all Winship facilities.
  • At present, only one caregiver may accompany you to your treatment.
  • To reduce the number of people in our facilities, in very specific cases we have implemented procedures to mail cancer medications to patients. Ask your care team if home delivery of cancer medications is an option for you.

Sometimes my clinical trial drug gives me a fever. How can I tell if the fever is a side effect of the trial drug or is the onset of COVID-19?

Drug-related fever usually happens around the time of infusion and is not associated with typical symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, etc.) If you are in doubt, please reach out to your medical team and they can provide more guidance about need for testing and additional follow-up. 

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