COVID-19 and cancer, one year later: advocating for early vaccination and lessons learnt

One year ago today the COVID-19 outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, marking the start of an unprecedented health crisis which is not over yet.  

In the Annals of Oncology, an editorial authored by some ESMO representatives recalls the many challenges facing medical oncologists during the past 12 months and the key actions undertaken by the Society to continue standing by its members and all oncology stakeholders and ensure the best possible care to all patients with cancer in this unstable scenario.

The latest in this long list of ESMO’s initiatives is the “Vaccine. Monitor. Educate.” Call to Action directed towards EU Member States to underscore the importance of prioritising cancer patients within their COVID-19 vaccination plans, especially with regards to those patients on active anticancer treatment. Launched in January 2021, the Call has been supported so far by over 40 healthcare professional and patient organisations. 

 

In light of the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, back in January ESMO released ten statements to address the main issues and concerns about the use of these medicines in patients with cancer, which were followed by a Live Roundtable with renowned experts in oncology, immunology and vaccinology, and a webinar series on the scientific aspects of vaccination. 

The speed with which some novel COVID-19 vaccines have arrived in clinics owes much to recent advances in innovative technologies for vaccines for the treatment of established cancer, which have proven to be safe. However, there are still a lot of unknowns around the effects of the EU-approved COVID-19 vaccines in patients with cancer: ESMO emphasises the importance of diligently collect data via suitable studies to monitor the effects of vaccines in this group, including global registries.  

During the past year, in fact, real-world data (RWD) from registries like the TERAVOLT (Thoracic Cancers International COVID-19 Collaboration) Registry, have shown they can rapidly provide evidence to support clinical decision-making in complex situations such as a pandemic, when knowledge is lacking. Some now argue that the time has come to ramp up investments and accelerate the integration of real-world evidence (RWE) in oncology globally. 

Looking back to the past year, oncology professionals agree that despite all the suffering, the pandemic served as a catalyst for testing much-awaited changes such as the simplification and the rationalisation of clinical trial methodology and the switch to virtual visits to reduce the burden for cancer patients, and that these lessons may help to shape the future of cancer care. 

However, the health crisis has also shed a new light on the gaps, fragilities and inequalities in cancer care globally. For example, cancer screening programmes suffered a complete shutdown during the early stages of the pandemic, and only half of them have re-opened in the past few months. In many low- and middle-income countries, experts say it will take 12-24 months to restart in full capacity due to lack of resources. Being these services considered non-urgent and deferrable, the disruption of routine screening for early detection of new cancer cases will lead to diagnostic delays which, ultimately, will translate in dark statistics for cancer in the coming years. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the importance of solidarity globally, ESMO as the leading professional organisation for medical oncology, will continue to support oncology professionals as much as possible by helping them to ensure equitable access to all opportunities to protect the most vulnerable ones. 

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