Patients with cancer a ‘high priority’ for COVID-19 vaccine, says AACR task force


Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, the American Association for Cancer Research has called for people with cancer to be considered as a high-priority group.

“The available evidence supports the conclusion that patients with cancer, in particular with hematologic malignancies, should be considered among the high-risk groups for priority COVID-19 vaccination,” according to the AACR’s COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force.

A review of literature suggested that COVID-19 fatality rates for patients with cancer were double that of individuals without cancer, the team noted. The higher mortality rates still trended upward, even after adjusting for confounders including age, sex, and comorbidities, indicating that there is a greater risk for severe disease and COVID-19–related mortality.

The new AACR position paper was published online Dec. 19 in Cancer Discovery.

“We conclude that patients with an active cancer should be considered for priority access to COVID-19 vaccination, along other particularly vulnerable populations with risk factors for adverse outcomes with COVID-19,” the team wrote.

However, the authors noted that “it is unclear whether this recommendation should be applicable to patients with a past diagnosis of cancer, as cancer survivors can be considered having the same risk as other persons with matched age and other risk factors.

“Given that there are nearly 17 million people living with a history of cancer in the United States alone, it is critical to understand whether these individuals are at a higher risk to contract SARS-COV-2 and to experience severe outcomes from COVID-19,” they added.

Allocation of initial doses

There has already been much discussion on the allocation of the initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines that have become available in the United States. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that the first wave of vaccinations, described as phase 1a, should be administered to health care workers (about 21 million people) and residents of long-term care facilities (about 3 million).

The next priority group, phase 1b, should consist of frontline essential workers, a group of about 30 million, and adults aged 75 years or older, a group of about 21 million. When overlap between the groups is taken into account, phase 1b covers about 49 million people, according to the CDC.

Finally, phase 1c, the third priority group, would include adults aged 65-74 years (a group of about 32 million), adults aged 16-64 years with high-risk medical conditions (a group of about 110 million), and essential workers who did not qualify for inclusion in phase 1b (a group of about 57 million). With the overlap, Phase 1c would cover about 129 million people.

The AACR task force, led by Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in their position paper that their recommendation is consistent with ACIP’s guidelines. Those guidelines concluded that patients with cancer are at a higher risk for severe COVID-19, and should be one of the groups considered for early COVID-19 vaccination.

Questions remain

Approached for independent comment, Cardinale Smith, MD, PhD, chief quality officer for cancer services for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, agreed with the AACR task force. “I share that they should be high priority,” she said, “But we don’t know that the efficacy will the same.”

Dr. Smith noted that the impact of cancer therapy on patient immune systems is more related to the type of treatment they’re receiving, and B- and T-cell responses. “But regardless, they should be getting the vaccine, and we just need to follow the guidelines.”

The AACR task force noted that information thus far is quite limited as to the effects of COVID-19 vaccination in patients with cancer. In the Pfizer-BioNTech BNT162b2 COVID vaccine trial, of 43,540 participants, only 3.7% were reported to have cancer. Other large COVID-19 vaccine trials will provide further follow-up information on the effectiveness of the vaccines in patients receiving different cancer treatments, they wrote, but for now, there is “currently not enough data to evaluate the interactions between active oncologic therapy with the ability to induce protective immunity” to COVID-19 with vaccination.

In a recent interview, Nora Disis, MD, a medical oncologist and director of both the Institute of Translational Health Sciences and the Cancer Vaccine Institute, University of Washington, Seattle, also discussed vaccinating cancer patients.

She pointed out that even though there are data suggesting that cancer patients are at higher risk, “they are a bit murky, in part because cancer patients are a heterogeneous group.”

“For example, there are data suggesting that lung and blood cancer patients fare worse,” said Dr. Disis, who is also editor in chief of JAMA Oncology. “There is also a suggestion that, like in the general population, COVID risk in cancer patients remains driven by comorbidities.”

She also pointed out the likelihood that individualized risk factors, including the type of cancer therapy, site of disease, and comorbidities, “will shape individual choices about vaccination among cancer patients.”

It is also reasonable to expect that patients with cancer will respond to the vaccines, even though historically some believed that they would be unable to mount an immune response. “Data on other viral vaccines have shown otherwise,” said Dr. Disis. “For example, there has been a long history of studies of flu vaccination in cancer patients, and in general, those vaccines confer protection.”

Several of the authors of the AACR position paper, including Dr. Ribas, reported relationships with industry as detailed in the paper. Dr. Smith has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

Next Article: