Health experts have expressed fears over the impact tighter Covid restrictions in England could have on cancer patients as alarming new figures reveal that the number taking part in clinical trials plummeted by almost 60% during the pandemic.
Almost 40,000 cancer patients in England were “robbed” of the chance to take part in life-saving trials during the first year of the coronavirus crisis, according to a report by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), which said Covid-19 had compounded longstanding issues of trial funding, regulation and access.
Figures obtained from the National Institute for Health Research by the ICR show that the number of patients recruited on to clinical trials for cancer in England fell to 27,734 in 2020-21, down 59% from an average of 67,057 over the three years previously. The number of patients recruited for trials fell for almost every type of cancer analysed.
Health experts said the relentless impact of Covid on the ability of doctors and scientists to run clinical trials was denying many thousands of cancer patients access to the latest treatment options and delaying the development of cutting-edge drugs.
Nick James, professor of prostate and bladder cancer research at the ICR, said: “Clinical trials are the single best way to turn advances in science into patient benefits. But trial recruitment has plummeted during the pandemic, slowing the pipeline of new treatments and robbing people with cancer access to potentially life-saving medicines.
“We need urgent investment in the Covid-19 recovery of clinical trials. We also need to learn the lessons from Covid-19. It’s clear that bureaucracy and regulatory barriers for clinical trials often do more harm than good, hindering our progress in developing the next gamechanging cancer treatments.”
Asked about the possible impact of further Covid restrictions on cancer research and patients, James said that Plan B “may not be a bad thing” if it helped the NHS to continue treating cancer patients.
However, he expressed concerns that a renewed “focus” on the virus may come at a cost to cancer patients and clinical trials. “Given at present Covid deaths are running way below cancer deaths, we just have to make sure we don’t focus on the wrong things to the detriment of a much wider group of people, by worsening outcomes for things that are actually much bigger killers than Covid.”