COVID-19 Drug Evidence Initiative (CDEI) team members, from left: Avery Loi, Sameera Toenjes, Arvind Grewal, Joseph Li, Truong Dao, and Christopher Tse.

As the number of scientific papers about COVID-19 keeps growing, health care professionals have a harder time keeping up with the most relevant literature. A group of students from the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy has created a new initiative to identify, evaluate and communicate evidence from COVID-19 treatment trials, helping to make the latest research accessible to those who need it.

The six students – Sameera Toenjes, Avery Loi, Truong Dao, Christopher Tse, Joseph Li and Arvind Grewal – were all about to complete their fourth year of the PharmD program when the pandemic started. “We all had a desire to help out,” says Toenjes. “We’ve been training for four years and accumulated this knowledge base that could be really useful in the time of a pandemic – if not on the front line, then in another capacity.”

Despite the abundance of COVID-19 research, the students could not find a resource focused solely on identifying and evaluating clinical trials about drugs to treat the disease. They realized that they could use the knowledge and skills developed over the course of their degree to fill this critical gap and officially launched the COVID-19 Drug Evidence Initiative (CDEI) at the end of April.

“We are filling a very specific need. Some existing resources list hundreds of papers of all kinds of studies, not just drug treatments”

“We are filling a very specific need. Some existing resources list hundreds of papers of all kinds of studies, not just drug treatments,” says Loi. “We can apply our expertise in the area of drugs and make the information easily accessible for health care professionals.”

Karen Cameron, a lecturer at the Faculty, agrees that this type of resource is needed. “It is difficult for busy health care providers to quickly assess the quality of this information and assess its impact on treatment practices,” she says. “Having a resource that summarizes the prospective randomized trials is invaluable as a quick reference point for clinicians.” 

While developing the initiative, the team received support and feedback from several faculty members, including Cameron. “These students were preparing to move on to the next step in their professional lives when rotations, graduation and licensing exams were cancelled,” says Cameron. “They were able to mobilize in a time of uncertainty to identify a gap in information and how they could make a meaningful contribution. I’m immensely proud of their contribution during this challenging time.”

Students focus on making information accessible and usable

The CDEI team decided to focus their project on prospective intervention trials, since they are the most applicable studies to clinical practice. When they find a study that meets their criteria, they summarize and appraise it, identify the limitations and, importantly, communicate the information in understandable and usable ways. “Pharmacists are one of the most accessible health care professionals,” says Toenjes. “So we wanted to make information that was also very accessible and easily digestible for the public.”

So far, more than 1000 unique visitors have visited the CDEI website, and the team is continuously working to reach more clinicians.

The project, like COVID-19 research as a whole, is still in early days, and it has helped to make the students more aware of one of the unique challenges of this pandemic – a lack of known effective treatments. “We were shocked by how much further we have to go in terms of evidence,” says Toenjes. “Out of thousands of articles we’ve searched, only nine or ten have fit our criteria, and the evidence hasn’t been strong for a lot of them. It will be interesting to see what changes over the next couple of months.”

“A lot of our work is still to come as more of the high quality studies start coming out,” adds Loi. “That’s when it will be especially important to get the information into practice for people working.”

Medical experts in Ontario have also created two committees to review evidence

Earlier this month, U of T News covered the creation of two Ontario committees – one charged with recommending the most effective drugs and the other with how best to manage critical illness. One committee, called the Clinical Practice Guidelines for Antimicrobial and Immunomodulatory Therapy in Adult Patients with COVID-19, is reviewing the body of evidence for specific drugs and developing recommendations for clinical practice. The committee is made up of infectious disease specialists, ethicists and pharmacists, including members of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

By: Eileen Hoftyzer
Published: May 15, 2020

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