AACR Releases Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care

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On February 9, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) released the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care. According to findings contained within the report, patients with cancer are not only at an increased risk for developing severe COVID-19, but also face cancer treatment delays and interruptions due to the pandemic, potentially worsening cancer outcomes. In addition, the report found that the pandemic has caused significant challenges for researchers, leading to laboratory closures and clinical trial interruptions.

The report was released during a virtual Congressional briefing. It documents both the challenges caused by the pandemic and the lessons learned that can lead to improvements in clinical trial design and patient care.

Consequences for Patients With Cancer

Patients with cancer, especially those with hematologic cancers, not only face a greater chance of contracting COVID-19 and having severe illness, but interruptions in their cancer treatment may also contribute to worse cancer-related outcomes in the coming years. According to the report, patients with hematologic cancers, as well as those receiving B-cell–targeted therapeutics, are at higher risk for being infected with the coronavirus and have also been shown to have a poor response to the available vaccines. The delays in cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment caused by the pandemic have had and may continue to have negative effects on cancer outcomes.

The pandemic has resulted in nearly 10 million missed cancer screenings from January to July 2020, and in addition, has:

  • Impaired referrals for preliminary cancer diagnoses and led to an 11% increase in patients diagnosed with inoperable or metastatic cancer during March to December 2020 compared to the same time frame in 2019
  • Caused delays in cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery
  • Impacted the mental health of patients, survivors, and caregivers due to social isolation, financial stress, food insecurity, and concerns about timely access to cancer treatments and disease recurrence
  • Caused racial and ethnic minorities and other medically underserved populations to shoulder a disproportionate burden of COVID-19, as these populations have been more affected by pandemic-related disruptions to the cancer care continuum.

The Challenges Faced by Researchers—and the Rewards

The pandemic has not only upended scientific research and clinical trial investigations, but it has also negatively impacted the career development of researchers, especially for women and other minorities. According to the survey results of 66 AACR grant recipients published in the report, 99% of respondents said that the pandemic negatively impacted their research, career, and/or patient care; 87% reported a loss in productivity; and 61% said the pandemic has delayed their career advancement.

However, the results from the survey also show that researchers used their expertise in genetics, immunology, and drug development to combat the pandemic. For example, the report details how the National Cancer Institute (NCI) unified its national network of serology centers to support research on SARS–CoV-2 immunology and increase the nation’s serologic testing capacity, resulting in new insights into the mechanisms of immune response to COVID-19. In addition, decades of research in mRNA vaccines for use as cancer immunotherapies were instrumental in the quick development of COVID-19 vaccines, and have renewed enthusiasm for continued investigation in mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies.

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR

“We have tackled cancer in a science-based manner, where we define the problem, understand the processes, and then develop treatments or ways to improve health,” said Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR, Chair of both the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care Steering Committee and the AACR COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force; and Immediate Past-President of AACR, in a statement. “The same had to be done for COVID-19. The cancer research community has generated so many tools to study cancer—sequencing, developing antibodies, pioneering targeted therapies—that have also helped researchers address COVID-19. And the best example of all is the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.”

Improving Cancer Care

Despite the many disruptions in cancer care and clinical research caused by the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic helped usher in some practices that may lead to future improvements in cancer care for patients, according to the report. For example, the use of telemedicine jumped 38 times higher in July 2021 than before the pandemic. The pandemic also amplified barriers to clinical trial participation, and in response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlined voluntary flexibilities for clinical trials, including using telemedicine to assess patient outcomes and wellness, as well as allowing home delivery of trial medications; remote consenting; and collaborations with local clinics, imaging facilities, and laboratories.

A Call to Action

The report includes steps Congress should take to rebuild the country’s public health infrastructure, enhance medical research, and modernize how patients receive care and enroll in clinical trials. The recommendations include:

  • Offsetting pandemic-related research costs by providing at least $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its grantees in emergency supplemental funding as proposed in the Research Investments to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act of 2021
  • Increasing investments in cancer research and prevention by supporting robust, sustained, and predictable growth for the NIH and NCI, including at least $3.5 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, in fiscal year (FY) 2022, for a total funding level of $46.4 billion for the NIH and $7.6 billion for the NCI
  • Enacting policies that broaden health-care coverage and reduce inequities in access to health care, such as expanding Medicaid
  • Delivering a permanent extension of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services–approved telehealth services and supporting greater access to telehealth by providing funding, including grants, to support high-speed broadband, reach underserved areas, and address the digital divide
  • Supporting the FDA’s regulatory science initiatives and advancing the development of oncology products by providing an increase of at least $343 million in discretionary budget authority in FY 2022
  • Increasing diversity in clinical trials and alleviating the financial burden on prospective trial participants by reimbursing patients for ancillary trial-related costs, including transportation and lodging, as contained in the Diversifying Investigations Via Equitable Research Studies for Everyone (DIVERSE) Trials Act.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of basic science, cancer prevention, cancer screenings, and addressing cancer disparities,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), Chief Executive Officer of AACR, in a statement.

Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)

Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)

“To restore the momentum against cancer, we urge Congress to continue its long-standing commitment to supporting cancer research. Robust, sustained, and predictable annual funding increases for NIH and NCI will propel future scientific advances, maximize returns from prior investments in cancer research, drive economic prosperity, and support new life-saving cures for patients with cancer," she concluded.

For more information on the report, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.