Finding volunteers for clinical trials proves difficult, even during a pandemic

People reach for medicine every day without a second thought about how it came to them, but those drugs, vaccines, and medical treatments all go through clinical trials to test them first. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed just how important clinical trials are to public health when developing the COVID-19 vaccine. Thousands of people joined clinical trials for the first time ever last year to test the vaccine, including Redington Beach resident Steve Wotovich.

"I was pretty much a healthy adult and wanted to make a little sacrifice and try to help the older population really, especially my parents," said Wotovich.

Wotovich said he got the actual vaccine, not the placebo, and he would join a vaccine trial again depending on the ailment being tested.

"There definitely are some potential dangers in joining a trial because sometimes it doesn’t work and you are being tested for that purpose. But I think the gain, the benefit to society, to my parents, to your parents, was so substantial that it was work any risk that I put myself through," said Wotovich to FOX13.

LINK: COVID-19 vaccine distribution information in Tampa Bay area counties

Medical professionals are raising awareness about clinical trials this week, following Clinical Trials Day on Thursday.

"Without the trials, we as physicians wouldn’t be able to figure out what treatments would work best for a patient," said Dr. Hatem Soliman, the medical director of clinical trials at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Dr. Soliman said the studies are critical to everyone, and doctors struggle to get volunteers.

"Numerous studies have shown that only a very small fraction, usually less than 10% of patients participate in a clinical trial when they’re diagnosed with cancer," said Soliman. 

It’s a challenge for any trial looking for volunteers.

"When it comes to heart disease or neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia or even something as common as asthma or the common cold, we want to make sure that we’re testing everything that will go into or onto someone’s body," said Dr. Kevin Sneed, the dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of South Florida.

Enrolling diverse groups matters for testing, including people of different races, ethnicities, health, and socio-economic backgrounds. Dr. Sneed said it’s a challenge and doctors can do a better job with recruiting.

"Whether it be opportunity for employment, transportation or just plain access to even know that the clinical trial even exists so there are numerous barriers that we have to overcome," said Sneed. "I really believe that one of the most profound things we can do is educate people about the importance of clinical research, and make sure that we’re having proper and continual outreach not just when we need them but when they need us."

Wotovich said doctors supervised him from start to finish and it was a thorough process. Doctors like Sneed and Soliman said clinical trials are highly regulated and the treatments are well-tested for risks and dangers before reaching the first phase of clinical trials in humans.

For Wotovich, the experience was worth it to contribute to the greater good of global health.