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COVID-19: Older patients with cancer especially vulnerable


Data from China

A report published February 14 in the Lancet Oncology appears to be the first analysis in the literature to focus on COVID-19 in patients with cancer.

“Patients with cancer are more susceptible to infection than individuals without cancer because of their systemic immunosuppressive state caused by the malignancy and anticancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or surgery,” write the authors, led by Wenhua Liang, MD, of Guangzhou Medical University. However, in correspondence published in the Lancet Oncology, other experts in China question some of Liang’s and colleagues’ findings.

The report by Liang and colleagues concerns a prospective cohort of 1590 patients with COVID-19.

There were 2007 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among patients admitted to 575 hospitals throughout China as of January 31. Of those cases, 417 were excluded from the analysis because of insufficient information regarding disease history.

The team reports that of 18 patients with cancer and COVID-19, 39% were at significantly higher risk for “severe events.” By comparison, of 1572 patients with COVID-19 who did not have cancer, 8% were at significantly higher risk (P = .0003). These events included rapid clinical deterioration that required admission to intensive care; invasive ventilation; or death.

Patients with cancer experienced a much more rapid deterioration in clinical status than did those without cancer. The median time to severe events was 13 days, vs 43 days (hazard ratio [HR] adjusted for age, 3.56; P < .0001).

The analysis also shows that patients who underwent chemotherapy or surgery in the past month had a 75% risk of experiencing clinically severe events, compared with a 43% risk for those who had not received recent treatment.

After adjusting for other risk factors, including age and smoking history, older age was the only risk factor for severe events (odds ratio [OR], 1.43; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.97 – 2.12; P = .072), the study authors say.

Patients with lung cancer did not have a higher probability of severe events compared with patients with other cancer types (20% vs 62%, respectively; P = .294).

Liang and colleagues conclude that these findings provide “a timely reminder to physicians that more intensive attention should be paid to patients with cancer, in case of rapid deterioration.”

The team also proposes three strategies for managing patients with cancer who are at risk for COVID-19 or any other severe infectious disease. They recommend that intentional postponement of adjuvant chemotherapy or elective surgery be considered for patients with stable cancer who live in areas where disease is endemic. Stronger “personal protection provisions” could also be made for patients with cancer or for cancer survivors. Lastly, for patients with cancer who have COVID-19, especially those who are older or who have comorbidities, more intensive surveillance or treatment should be considered.

However, in comments in the Lancet Oncology, other authors in China say these findings should be interpreted with caution.

One group suggests that the increased susceptibility to COVID-19 in patients with cancer could be the result of higher rates of smoking compared with patients who did not have cancer. “Overall, current evidence remains insufficient to explain a conclusive association between cancer and COVID-19,” say Huahao Shen, PhD, of Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, and colleagues.

Another group suggests that the significantly higher median age of patients with cancer compared with noncancer patients (63 years vs 49 years) may have contributed to poor prognosis.

These authors, led by Li Zhang, MD, PhD, and Hanping Wang, MD, of Peking Union Medical College and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Beijing, emphasize that patients with cancer need online medical counseling and that critical cases need to be identified and treated.

“In endemic areas outside Wuhan, decisions on whether or not to postpone cancer treatment need to made on a patient-by-patient basis and according to the risk to the patient and the prevailing situation because delays could lead to tumor progression and ultimately poorer outcomes,” they write.

The study was funded by the China National Science Foundation and the Key Project of Guangzhou Scientific Research Project. Liang and coauthors, Shen and coauthors, Zhang, Wang, and Smith have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Markham has relationships with Aduro Biotech, Lilly, Tesaro, Novartis, and VBL Therapeutics.

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