Cancer Patients Could Be at Higher Risk of Catching Coronavirus, Study Suggests

Cancer patients have a higher risk of developing COVID-19 compared with others, according to the authors of a study who warn hospital visits could make them vulnerable to catching the new coronavirus.

The authors of the research letter published in the journal JAMA Oncology looked at the medical records of 1,524 cancer patients who had been admitted to the Department of Radiation and Medical Oncology at Zhongnan Hospital, at China's Wuhan University, between December 30, 2019 and February 17, 2020. The team noted the outcomes of patients who also had COVID-19, and found three died. On average, the infected patients were 66-years-old. Fewer than half were undergoing active treatment for their cancers.

The data revealed the infection rate of cancer patients with COVID-19 was 0.79 percent versus 0.37 percent for the general population of the city of Wuhan during the period the study was conducted. This amounted to a two-fold higher risk.

A total of 228 patients had a form of cancer known as non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). Those with the condition who were over 60 were found to be more likely to have COVID-19 than those who were younger. The team said future studies using a larger sample size could shed light on the link between COVID-19 and NSCLC.

Using the name of the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19, the authors warned: "Our findings imply that hospital admission and recurrent hospital visits are potential risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 infection."

Co-author Dr. Melvin Chua, clinician-scientist at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, told Newsweek the work adds to a previous multicenter study from China which suggested cancer patients have a higher risk of developing COVID-19.

Chua said his team want to see whether a patients' cancer treatment predisposed them to the risk of COVID-19 due to how it can suppress their immune system.

"We realized that a majority of patients were in fact going to the hospital for the routine surveillance visits, and that was an equal risk factor for them acquiring COVID-19," he said. "We believe that this supports the current messaging of aggressively reducing hospital visits for cancer or any at risk patients."

Acknowledging a limitation of the work, Chua said, "Unfortunately, despite having a large dataset, we were still limited by the small number of lung cancer patients with COVID-19," adding: "we would like to interrogate deeper the relationship between lung cancer and COVID-19 pneumonia."

Asked how the study contributes to our wider understanding of coronavirus, Chua said, "There are substantial clinical implications while the world is in the midst of this pandemic.

"First, it will help inform on infection control measures, and also motivate aggressive measures to adapt patients' treatment. Next, we are looking to explore the interaction between COVID-19 and anti-cancer therapies, in particular, small molecule targeted therapies and immunotherapies (there is a thinking that patients on such therapies may have worse COVID-19)."

Chua concluded, "Finally, there is a greater problem to address at the end of this pandemic, which is the impact of the outbreak on the outcomes of cancer patients, since several patients could not be treated or had their treatment interrupted due to the lockdown."

As indicated by the Statista graph below, more than 430,700 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic started. Over 19,600 have died, and almost 112,000 have recovered, according to a dashboard kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Number of COVID-19 cases compared to recoveries.
Number of COVID-19 cases compared to recoveries.
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Medical staff check a cell phone as they treat COVID-19 coronavirus patients at a hospital in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on March 19, 2020. STR/AFP via Getty Images