Pandemic’s Silver Lining: Lasting Research Innovation

Contributed Comment by Eric Langlois

September 16, 2020 | Some good news: non-COVID medical research, including clinical trials, has partially resumed after widespread suspensions, delays and slowdowns during the outbreak. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of the U.S. trials disrupted at the first peak of the pandemic in April had recovered by July, meaning they were either currently active or completed.

Less good news: Subsequent waves of COVID-19 infections have descended upon us, threatening to re-occupy clinicians, researchers, and labs and push other work to the margins (if they haven’t already). Doubt is now fading: This disease and its mutations, side effects, and complications will likely be with us for a long time. For many researchers, there really is no second wave; the pandemic may just be one tsunami of need.

Fortunately, adversity can trigger adaptation. Although we would prefer to avoid such hardship, this relentless crisis may help yield a better medical response to the next one. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the research community to streamline processes in concrete ways that may benefit health care long after the worst of COVID-19 subsides. Examples of these positive adaptations include:

Speed and agility: The medical research community learned in March 2020 how to turn on a dime, suspending some projects and refocusing available resources on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Vaccine development is proceeding faster than ever.

Sharper focus: Some research organizations are dedicating themselves to understanding and fighting this virus (and others) long term, focusing on the development of vaccines required in the years ahead. NIH just awarded $17 million in grants as it established the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Other organizations are studying the growing constellation of complications affecting COVID-19 patients’ respiratory, circulatory, liver, central nervous systems, and more.

Telemedicine: Even long-standing face-to-face requirements are morphing. Much has been made of mainstream businesses collaborating over Zoom, but a similar revolution has occurred in the clinic with telehealth, videoconferencing, and wearables—all helping close the gap between clinicians and patients. Adoption of telemedicine by U.S. sites has more than doubled during COVID-19, with 73% of clinical trial sites surveyed indicating they plan to use telemedicine as part of their clinical trials going forward.

Better planning: Nearly 45% of U.S. non-COVID-19 clinical trials that had a planned start date in 2020 have been delayed. Smart research organizations, stymied by the pandemic, have doubled down over the past five months on the things they can do remotely, including teeing up non-COVID research that can be activated when distancing guidelines are lifted. Research teams have been designing, scoping, planning, scheduling, preparing, and equipping themselves for new, upcoming non-COVID projects. They will be first out of the gate when life returns to something resembling “normal.”

Enhanced readiness: There’s every reason to expect new viruses will emerge in the future, warranting similarly urgent responses. Resulting diseases will require additional resources and materials, such as patient data and banked biospecimens. Increased awareness about viral disease today will precipitate more funding, research, and discovery tomorrow.

Offsite data/specimen collection: With labs and clinical offices overwhelmed by COVID-19, organizations are trying new models of collecting biospecimens for observational or pre-clinical research—including mobile phlebotomy. Research organizations are also taking advantage of dedicated phlebotomy sites established away from overburdened health care facilities—for example, at corporate office parks—giving researchers, subjects, patients, and clinicians an alternative for biospecimen collection. The goal is to keep the research pipeline full and thriving.

Technology innovation: Another promising development is the rise of new, at-home microsampling performed by the patient. By touching a simple finger-stick tool to a drop of blood on a finger and mailing the sample in, the kit enables researchers to safely and cost-effectively reach large populations without the trouble of phlebotomists, couriers, clinic visits, cold-chain shipping, or freezers.

Biospecimen and research alternatives: The number of both cancer and elective surgeries are down, creating a shortage of fresh tumor and tissue samples for research. For some, frozen and cryopreserved sample options are providing viable alternatives to help keep critical research on track. For others, a move toward liquid biopsy research—fueled by the availability of blood, serum, and urine—is taking precedence. This segment of diagnostics continues to demonstrate promising results for a future of early detection and intervention.

Knowledge creation: The spread of COVID-19 is proportionately increasing supply of research biospecimens—particularly blood—and a wealth of data about the virus, the disease, patients, and asymptomatic carriers. Researchers are getting abundant supplies of both remnant biospecimens from lab tests and custom sets of specimens collected on demand from specific patient cohorts. Crucially, researchers can procure blood samples from single patients at multiple stages of infection and recovery, revealing the behavior of antibodies and mutations. As with the flu, some are speculating that researchers and drug developers will need to constantly adapt emerging vaccines for select populations—the elderly, children, the obese, and the diabetic—as well as mutations in the future.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has complicated research and life in many ways, it has spawned novel approaches to perennial challenges—improvements that offer a silver lining and are likely to continue benefiting researchers and health care long after the virus is contained.

With over 20 years of experience in business development for preclinical sample collections in translational research, as Senior Vice President at iSpecimen, Eric Langlois plays a key role in not only expanding iSpecimen’s researcher network, but also in analyzing and developing the supply partner network in order to meet researchers’ demands. He can be reached at