CVS’ Shuttered Clinical Trials Business Doesn’t Mean Decentralized Models Are Doomed, Exec Says

CVS Health is winding down its clinical trials business, with a full exit expected by December 31, 2024, the company confirmed to MedCity News. But decentralized clinical trials still have an important role to play, said Brian Weiss, CEO of Carebox.

CVS Health tried something new. In 2021, it launched its clinical trials business in an effort to increase access and diversity by offering decentralized options in CVS locations, at home or virtually. But now two years later, the retailer announced that it is shuttering the business, the company confirmed to MedCity on Monday. 

That doesn’t mean decentralized clinical trials — in which patients are able to participate without being in a hospital-based setting — are a failed project, though. It will, however, take some patience to become successful, said one healthcare executive. 

“There are clearly gaps between hype and reality on ‘decentralized trials,’” said Brian Weiss, CEO of Carebox, a company that connects patients to clinical trials. “Science 37, a company dedicated to this model, is trading at under 3% of its IPO value. Neither that observation nor the closing of the CVS clinical trials business means that decentralized trial models are doomed or don’t have an important role to play in the evolution of clinical trials in the future. But it suggests that it will likely take a lot of patience and twists and turns to figure out what works and how much impact it can have.”

Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS Health “continually [evaluates] our portfolio of assets to ensure they are aligned with our long-term strategic priorities. As a result, we’re winding down our Clinical Trial Services business in a phased way, with a full exit expected by December 31, 2024,” said Mike DeAngelis, executive director of corporate communications, in an email.

The shuttering of a business shortly after launching is a common story in healthcare, Weiss said.

“This seems to be a lesson that large corporations (and investors in shiny-object startups) need to learn over and over again,” he said. “Healthcare and life sciences solutions are not a cool new mobile game or social platform that takes the world by storm overnight. Those of us who have been around a while recall things like the original Google Health or Microsoft Health. Those with shorter memories can consider Haven, the Amazon-Berkshire-JPMorgan venture. Splashy announcements with prestigious logos that fade quickly are the rule, not the exception, in our industries.”

It’s important to note that the company launched its clinical trials business after facilitating more than 300,000 volunteers into Covid-19 vaccine trials, another industry expert added.

“We have to remember that CVS launched this on the back of a major success story. … So there was likely a lot of optimism that the clinical trials arm could grow into a very sizable business,” said Marissa Moore, investor at OMERS Ventures. “But the truth is, in the two years since launch, it’s only achieved 11% of that scale (33,000 participants).”

She added that this announcement comes on the heels of two major acquisitions by CVS Health, “both of which are more central to the core business and the company’s long-term vision.” The retailer completed its $10.6 billion acquisition of primary care company Oak Street Health this month and completed its $8 billion acquisition of home care company Signify Health in March.

Moore agreed with Weiss that CVS Health’s closure of its clinical trials business doesn’t mean that decentralized clinical trials are a bust, however.

“We are in the business of backing innovation, so I applaud CVS for trying this,” she said. “And more importantly, their exit shouldn’t be taken as a signal that the opportunity isn’t worth pursuing. There are plenty of startups in this space as well and we hope, in time, that the broader collective will make clinical trials much more accessible and more representative of the population at large.”

Some of these startups include Topography HealthParadigmPower and Inato, which are all focused on expanding access to clinical trials. A couple of CVS Health’s retail competitors — Walgreens and Walmart — also have clinical trial businesses, which they launched shortly after CVS in 2022. These players exist at a time when about 80% of clinical trials don’t meet the initial enrollment target and deadline, and people from racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented.

Decentralized trials are a potential solution for these problems, Weiss of Carebox said.

“The underlying factors that drove the enthusiasm for decentralized trials and the CVS/Walgreens/Walmart announcements are legit,” Weiss stated. “The FDA is mandating diversity. Precision medicine means suitable patients are harder to find. Empowered patients with online resources/communities and digital health tools are not just going to be ‘slotted into trials’ by doctors at big research hospitals without being engaged in earnest. And the directional move to ‘bringing trials closer to patients’ at home, in community care settings, etc. is very needed.”

DeAngelis of CVS Health said the company is working with its trial sponsors to “ensure a smooth transition, as well as continuity of care and minimal disruption for patients.” It will also offer career transition support to employees who are unable to find another position at CVS Health.

Photo: Warchi, Getty Images

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