The AACR and 140 Organizations Send Letter to President Biden Requesting High COVID-19 Vaccine Priority for Cancer Patients and Survivors

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) last week led a contingent of 140 organizations, cancer centers, and other institutions in asking President Joseph R. Biden and leaders of state health departments to grant patients with cancer and cancer survivors high priority in receiving COVID-19 vaccinations.

Each year in the United States, about 1.8 million people are diagnosed with cancer. Another 16.9 million Americans are cancer survivors. Research has shown that patients receiving active treatment and those who have survived cancer may be more likely to experience complications if they are infected with COVID-19; therefore, they should be granted priority access to a COVID-19 vaccine, the letter stated.

The AACR and its collaborating organizations wrote the letter amid shifting guidelines from federal and state agencies on when various groups can receive the COVID-19 vaccines. Recently, adults over 65 were prioritized—a change that may leave many younger cancer patients and survivors scrambling to secure vaccinations, Jon Retzlaff, the AACR’s chief policy officer and vice president of science policy and government affairs, told Forbes.

patient receiving vaccination
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“States opening vaccination up to anyone over 65 would be fine in a time of plentiful vaccines, but we’re dealing with limited supply,” Retzlaff noted. “People with cancer and some cancer survivors are at a greater need and they may not get the vaccines they need if we open up the criteria without having enough supply. In a time of limited supply, you have to let people at high risk to the front of the line.”

AACR President Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR, told USA Today that cancer patients should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines so that they can continue their treatment regimens.

“Patients with cancer have lifesaving therapies. If there’s a delay or a break in their treatment, their outcomes are worse,” said Ribas, of the University of California Los Angeles.

John Carethers, MD, of the University of Michigan, shared a similar message with OncLive, adding that vaccinating patients with cancer can potentially protect them and those around them. “Patients with cancer have immune systems that are compromised based on the treatment that they’re getting, and if they get COVID-19, they’re not only more likely to experience serious disease, but to continuously shed the virus because their immune systems are slower to make protective antibodies,” said Carethers, who was a member of the Program Committee for the most recent AACR Virtual Meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer and spoke at the July 2020 AACR meeting on the same topic. “They’re going back forth to the hospital, and to caregivers, and could theoretically be super-spreaders.”

In closing, the AACR and the other participating organizations urged the Biden administration to prioritize cancer patients and survivors as they work with states to modify vaccination schedules.

 “We sincerely hope that you and your colleagues in the administration will stress to all State Public Health Departments that patients with active cancer and survivors of cancer must be provided priority access to a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine,” the letter stated.  

Other media coverage of the outreach to the Biden administration included stories in The Columbus Dispatch, WBNS-CBO, a CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio; Healio; Medpage Today; The Cancer Letter; The ASCO Post; Oncology Nursing News; and Cure Today. The full letter is available here.