People with cancer or a history of cancer have been through an incredibly difficult year. The COVID-19 pandemic presented countless challenges for this community, from disruptions in treatment plans and clinical trials to delays in routine screenings and feelings of loneliness and isolation. Everyday tasks like going to the grocery store or grabbing a cup of coffee presented significant risks, and many people have not been able to see their family or friends in over a year.
But with the emergency authorisations or approvals and roll-out of multiple COVID-19 vaccines, there is a renewed sense of optimism among the cancer community. Now, two new questions are top of mind: Should members of the cancer community get a COVID-19 vaccine? And what might the vaccines mean for cancer care going forward?
Many medical societies, including American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO), recommend that most people with cancer or a history of cancer get the COVID-19 vaccine, once it’s available to them. That being said, the type of cancer someone has (or had), their treatment status and the state of their immune system are all factors that can impact their vaccination decision. So, while the guidance for most patients is to get the COVID-19 vaccine, I recommend that people with cancer or a history of cancer speak with their care team about their individual vaccination plan.
I recognise that some people may feel nervous about getting a relatively new vaccine. But it’s important to remember that all biopharmaceutical research is held to highly rigorous regulatory standards. The authorisations of COVID-19 vaccines around the globe are the result of exhaustive and independent regulatory reviews that have concluded that the known and potential benefits of the vaccines outweigh the known and potential risks.
On a broader level, the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines will hopefully help to reverse the drastic decrease in routine cancer screenings and follow-up appointments that we saw throughout the pandemic. To put this into context, breast cancer screenings dropped by 89.2% and colorectal cancer screenings dropped by 84.5% in May 2020, as compared to 2019. Catching cancer early is vital, and these screenings have the potential to identify cancers in their earliest stages, when they are generally easier to treat. Experts warn that delaying these opportunities for intervention could result in more late-stage diagnoses with potentially worse prognoses.
COVID-19 vaccines could help change this. By getting more people vaccinated and moving towards the brightening light at the end of the tunnel, we can work to course correct and get cancer care back on track.
I am proud to say that Pfizer has made it a top priority to support this effort, by encouraging people to resume cancer screenings and follow-up appointments. Over the past year, we’ve partnered with the advocacy community to educate on the importance of screenings and provide resources so people can better understand what in-person and virtual appointments can entail. For example, our Get It Done campaign looks to engage the public about the importance of speaking with their doctors about keeping up with cancer screenings and follow-up appointments during COVID-19. Over time, we hope to see these critical interventions return to pre-pandemic levels.
The challenges the cancer community has faced throughout the pandemic, along with the unprecedented level of innovation and partnership we’ve seen in response, has also yielded important insights that can be applied to cancer care in the future. Pfizer has learned many lessons from the rapid development of our COVID-19 vaccine with BioNTech*, which will help improve our oncology operations and may ultimately bring new medicines to patients faster. We’ve already begun applying this “lightspeed” mentality to our oncology development pipeline.
But, of course, rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine or a new breakthrough cancer medicine means nothing if they can’t get to the people who need them. Pfizer’s commitment to equitable and affordable access to our medicines is one of the many ways our organization seeks to advance a more equitable healthcare system. In oncology, we are working tirelessly to bridge gaps in care and tackle inequalities to help ensure that all people living with cancer, no matter who they are or where they live, can benefit from advances in science.
I continue to be awestruck by the resilience that people living with cancer, cancer survivors and the broader community have shown throughout the pandemic. It is truly inspiring. People with cancer and cancer survivors will always be fearless heroes in my book, and with more and more people getting vaccinated each day, I am confident that hope is on the horizon.
*The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorised for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for use in individuals 16 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorised for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of emergency use of the medical product under Section 564(b)(1) of the FD&C Act unless the declaration is terminated or authorization revoked sooner. Please see EUA Fact Sheet at www.cvdvaccine.com.
See also Vaccination guidelines for cancer patients issued by the European Cancer Patient Coalition.