The Impact of COVID-19 on the Cancer Community

Report emphasizes the need to fortify public health and medical research to improve cancer care during the pandemic

Photo portrait of Miriam Bergeret
Miriam Bergeret, MSc
Published:Feb 11, 2022
|Updated:Jun 16, 2022
|3 min read

In an effort to understand the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer research and patients across the US, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has gathered in-depth information from cancer researchers across the country.

Released on February 9, 2022, the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care details the effect of COVID-19 on the cancer community and highlights the challenges as well as successes of cancer research and treatment during the pandemic.

In particular, AACR highlights the vulnerability of the cancer community to COVID-19: “In the United States in 2020, the risk of COVID-19 infection was seven times higher in patients diagnosed with cancer compared to those with no history of cancer,” states the report. “Notably, Black patients with breast or prostate cancer were at more than five times higher risk of COVID-19 infection compared to individuals who are White.”

Moreover, patients with blood cancers and patients receiving B cell-targeted therapies were found to not only be at a markedly higher risk for COVID-19, but to have poor responses to available vaccines.

Cancer and COVID-19 vaccines

Because the human immune system plays a crucial role in mounting an immune response against invading SARS-CoV-2, patients with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients, are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to mounting an immune response to vaccines and/or fighting the coronavirus, making them vulnerable to severe COVID-19.

To date, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have proven safe and effective in most people with cancer, and the current recommendations are for people with cancer to get fully vaccinated. However, some people receiving certain types of anticancer treatments have shown reduced response to COVID-19 vaccines.

“While the world’s attention may have shifted to the pandemic, the challenges of cancer have not subsided.”

Pivoting to combat COVID-19

The AACR also reports that many cancer researchers and clinicians working in the fields of genetics, immunology, and drug development lent their expertise to studying COVID-19 during the pandemic. In particular, the report emphasizes the success of mRNA vaccines, which in part stems from decades of research into mRNA-based cancer therapeutics.

Now, the demonstrated success of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines has reignited interest in using this technology to develop mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies and therapeutic vaccines.

The consequences of cancer delays

During the pandemic, public health officials and health care experts have been concerned about the negative effects of delays in cancer screening and treatment in the US caused by an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and clinics.

AACR reports there was an 87 percent decline in breast cancer screening in April 2020 compared to the average for April over the past five years. Because of the delays, once patients are able to access screening and care, many are diagnosed with precancerous lesions or early-stage cancers that would otherwise have been detected in regular screening appointments.

Likewise, clinicians reported having to modify treatment schedules for many patients who were suddenly unable to travel to health care centers due to travel restrictions.

These delays were particularly difficult for racial and ethnic minorities and other medically underserved populations who already experience cancer-related health disparities and have shouldered a disproportionate burden of COVID-19.

“Support for cancer research and cancer clinical care is more critical than ever.”

Remarkable changes to clinical trials

On a more positive note, AACR celebrates the quick changes and adaptations made during the pandemic to minimize the interruption of clinical cancer trials, including changes that have addressed existing challenges in clinical trials that are likely to persist beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes included advances in telehealth, electronic consent to participate in clinical trials, and shipping investigative anticancer therapies directly to patients, and are predicted to also minimize the logistical and financial burdens of patients that choose to participate in clinical trials, potentially making participation in trials more equitable for everyone, including patients belonging to racial and ethnic minorities.

A call to action

AACR’s call to action emphasizes the need to fortify the US’s public health and medical research systems, and to continue to improve how cancer patients access care and enroll in clinical trials.

“While the world’s attention may have shifted to the pandemic, the challenges of cancer have not subsided,” said Sharon Gorski, PhD, a distinguished scientist at the BC Cancer Research Institute in Canada. “Support for cancer research and cancer clinical care is more critical than ever.”


Photo portrait of Miriam Bergeret
Miriam Bergeret, MSc

Miriam Bergeret, MSc, is Today's Clinical Lab's managing editor. Before joining Today's Clinical Lab, Miriam obtained her MSc in laboratory medicine and pathobiology from the University of Toronto and gained valuable laboratory experience as a flow cytometry specialist at a cancer research center in Toronto, Canada. She went on to study publishing at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and is an active member of Editors Canada and the Council of Science Editors.


Top Image:
AACR has gathered in-depth information from cancer researchers across the country.
iStock, sorbetto