‘Virtual’ drug research is becoming a permanent reality as the coronavirus upends clinical trials and fuels a new breed of startups June 11, 2020

Coronavirus has caused hospitals to cancel all but the most urgent appointments, and doctors are turning to telemedicine to take care of their patients from a distance. But behind the scenes, the pandemic is also accelerating a fundamental shift in the typical expensive, sluggish way drugmakers test new medications on people—also known as clinical trials.

Traditionally, in clinical trials, patients report regularly to hospitals or clinics for check-ins or to receive their treatments. When the coronavirus hit, some drug companies and health systems were forced to pause some trials due to the risk of participants catching COVID-19 and the fact that overwhelmed hospitals didn’t have the resources to care for clinical trial patients.

Now, pharmaceutical companies and biotechs are doing more of their research away from hospitals in an approach called virtual or decentralized trials. These trials rely on tech tools that have already become popular during the outbreak such as video chats and internet-connected devices.

And the virtual trial pivot has led to more than $770 million raised for new approaches to clinical trials, according to an analysis of U.S. companies from Rock Health and Business Insider reporting. One startup allows patients to check out studies online and apply to get enrolled, and another is assembling huge databases with real-world data that researchers can use to speed up their studies.

Virtual alternatives to clinical trials aren’t a new thing, but the pandemic has given them a boost. Clinical trial startups have gotten more than $1 billion in funding over the past six years. According to Rock Health, the best funded startup taking new approaches to clinical trials is Verana Health, a company that assembles real-world data into databases for investors, which has raised the most, at $137.8 million. Science 37, TrialSpark, Saama, and Evidation Health are the other top-funded clinical trial startups.

The adoption of virtual trial technology has been slow because the industry is heavily regulated and generally nervous to do things that could put patients in harm’s way, according to Rock Health CEO Bill Evans, who worked at Genetech and Roche for more than a decade.

“Changing the way they do trials is potentially very complicated and risky,” Evans told Business Insider.

But the FDA says digital trial methods like checking in on participants with video chats rather than in-person visits are working. The FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, Amy Abernathy, said at a recent conference that the coronavirus was teaching us a lot about the role of digital health and artificial intelligence in making clinical research go faster.

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