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More than 50 NIHR studies axed due to Covid-19

Despite ‘good progress’ in restarting research, challenges remain and some studies have had to close

The National Institute for Health Research says it has made “good progress” in the implementation of its framework to restart research put on hold during the coronavirus outbreak, even as many studies have not made it through.

The update comes just over a month after the public health research funder published the framework, which set out plans to get research up and running again. As part of the plans, paused studies must undergo a check of its viability before restarting as well as safety checks, and at least 51 have had to close, though NIHR says this is only 1.3 per cent of the overall number of non-commercial studies.

The NIHR acknowledged “there are constraints to restart” such as the return of staff seconded to work in the frontline in the NHS, and furloughed staff in some academic institutions and charities. But it added: “Where research staff are no longer essential to providing Covid-19 care, it is our expectation they will be released to return to their research role as early as possible.”

There have also been communication issues delaying restart.

“One challenge has been that, when assessing study viability—an essential step prior to restart—sponsors are sometimes waiting for sites to confirm while sites are waiting for sponsors to confirm,” the funder said.

According to data NIHR received from 207 out of 223 NHS trusts, 174 trusts, 84 per cent of them, now have non-Covid studies open to recruitment as of 1 July—up from 57 per cent at the height of the pandemic.

Of 3,906 non-commercial studies that were open or in set-up during the acute phase of the pandemic, 55 per cent of studies are still on hold—down from 70 per cent at the peak. While 26 per cent of these are open for recruitment—up from 12 per cent at the peak. 

A total of 461 non-commercial studies are known to have restarted since the height of the pandemic.

“It’s been just over a month and we are seeing good progress in terms of assessments taking place and paused research being restarted in parallel with the restoration of routine clinical services,” William van’t Hoff, chief executive of the NIHR Clinical Research Network and senior responsible officer for the Restart Programme.

“We recognise the key workforce challenges, the continued pressure on NHS services in many areas of the country and the practical difficulties faced by patients, but I am confident we will continue to make headway in terms of restarting research.”

He added that the funder planned on sharing more information on its website each month, including data, case studies, best practices and possible updates to the framework.