publication date: Aug. 6, 2020

Gauging the effects of COVID-19 on cancer mortality

This story is part of The Cancer Letter’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19’s impact on oncology. A full list of our coverage is available here. 

For cancer epidemiologists, the COVID-19 pandemic is a natural experiment in the importance of screening, early detection, and diagnosis.

In January, the American Cancer Society announced that long-term efforts in lung cancer prevention and treatment are paying off: A significant decrease in lung cancer-specific mortality is mostly responsible for the biggest drop in overall cancer mortality—continuing the gradual decline observed since 1990.

Now, that 30-year downward trend may be interrupted by the virus.

In June, NCI projected that SARS-CoV-2 will lead to 10,000 additional deaths, on top of the expected one million deaths resulting from breast cancer and colorectal cancer. The estimated excess deaths for other cancer types are currently not known.

In many cities, the pandemic has severely exacerbated health and racial disparities—which became immediately apparent when the death toll began climbing. For example, by May, 80% of those who died from COVID-19 in Washington, D.C., were African American. According to the 2018 U.S. Census, 45.5% of the District’s population is Black.

The recent development of more sophisticated real-world data capabilities in oncology is timely, enabling researchers to rapidly pull data and study patient outcomes.

A study, conducted through the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium and published in The Lancet, found that “among patients with cancer and COVID-19, 30-day all-cause mortality was high and associated with general risk factors and risk factors unique to patients with cancer.”

Results from another study conducted by Syapse and FDA, announced July 22, found that cancer patients who had COVID-19 are more likely to have a 16-fold increased mortality risk.

“The clinical experience of people with cancer who have contracted COVID-19 is an essential resource that can help the medical community better understand the impact of the disease in this population,” said Harpreet Singh, associate director of cancer in older adults and special populations at FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence, and director of Division of Oncology 2 within FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

“The data we analyzed in collaboration with Syapse revealed a stark reality that people with cancer are at an increased risk of more serious outcomes from COVID-19 but also that there are inequities for Black Americans and those of lower socioeconomic means,” Singh said in a statement. “It’s imperative that we continue to rapidly examine real-world data to address the urgent health care challenges brought on by this pandemic.”

The Cancer Letter’s comprehensive coverage of the pandemic is available here.

Following is our 2020 coverage of data on cancer mortality:


Feb. 7

Are drugs really driving the latest drop in lung cancer mortality? Looks like treatment is playing a role, experts say

On Jan. 8, the American Cancer Society published its annual estimates of new cancer cases and deaths, declaring that the latest data—from 2016 to 2017—show the “largest ever single-year drop in overall cancer mortality of 2.2%.”

Read more


March 20

Sifting through fatality data and projections on COVID-19: People with cancer, other comorbidities face highest risk

Early data from China and Italy confirm that cancer patients are at higher risk for developing severe adverse events and dying after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Read more


May 1

AACR data from China and Europe amount to “two different messages” for cancer patients with COVID-19

Are COVID-19 patients with cancer at a greater risk of dying than non-cancer patients? Depends on whom you ask.

Read more


May 8

COVID-19 slams into the nation’s capital region; Here is the damage assessment at six institutions

In the first effort of its sort, The Cancer Letter has compiled a damage assessment, gauging the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, gathering information on populations that were struck hardest, and quantifying impact on academic cancer centers and large hospital systems.

Read more


May 15

Sharpless: COVID-19 threatens to reverse long-running trend of decreasing cancer mortality

Delayed cancer diagnoses, deferred care, and postponed surgeries amid the COVID-19 pandemic will adversely impact cancer outcomes, which may show up as an increase in cancer mortality in the next few years, said NCI Director Ned Sharpless.

Read more


June 19

Sharpless: COVID-19 expected to increase mortality by at least 10,000 deaths from breast and colorectal cancers over 10 years

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely cause at least 10,000 excess deaths from breast cancer and colorectal cancer over the next 10 years in the United States.

Read more

Copyright (c) 2020 The Cancer Letter Inc.