ONE OF MY FIRST ACTIONS AS PRESIDENT of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in 2020 was to launch the AACR COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force to support patients with cancer, which culminated in the release of the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care in February 2022. This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the burden COVID-19 has placed on cancer research, including closing labs, interrupting clinical trials, reducing cancer screenings and delaying cancer care.
The pandemic also provided important lessons for the next pandemic and the future of cancer research and treatment. To this end, the report includes a Call to Action as a roadmap for policymakers to ensure the cancer community is better positioned to support cancer researchers and patients when confronted by a similar threat.
First, Congress should support robust, sustained and predictable funding growth at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). These investments paid dividends in combating COVID-19, with NIH-funded investment in mRNA research paving the way for development of COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed. The NCI’s national network of serology centers pivoted to support COVID-19 immunology research and increase the nation’s serological testing capacity, providing a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the immune response. Additional research will unlock breakthroughs for years to come.
Second, our public health infrastructure is fractured and must be rebuilt. Decades of underinvestment in federal, state and local health departments created unnecessary obstacles to pandemic surveillance and response. Congress should increase investments in a comprehensive national public health data reporting system to better identify and track trends in public health threats and diseases, including cancers; provide adequate funding for the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies; and enact policies to strengthen the health care workforce and empower public health officials.
Third, we must broaden health coverage and access to improve patient outcomes and reduce inequities. Insurance coverage is one of the most important factors associated with cancer survival. As the pandemic took its toll and millions of Americans lost employer-sponsored health coverage, Medicaid enrollment grew, ensuring that Americans could continue to receive well-patient visits and cancer prevention, screening and treatment. The report calls on Congress to support policies that broaden health care coverage, such as Medicaid expansion, to ensure patients have access to the services that will best prevent, detect and treat cancers.
In addition, as patients and health providers reduced in-person interactions, Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded coverage of telehealth services, which opened the door to bringing health care more broadly to people, in particular medically underserved and rural populations. However, many of these telehealth advances are temporary and will expire without congressional action. Therefore, the report calls on Congress to support a permanent extension of telehealth services.
Finally, it is imperative that we make it easier for patients with cancer to participate in clinical trials. During the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized voluntary flexibilities for clinical trials, such as using telemedicine to assess outcomes and patient wellness rather than requiring in-person assessments, allowing prospective trial participants to consent remotely, providing for the delivery of trial medications to a patient’s home and increasing collaborations with local clinics and facilities so participants could access screenings and services close to home. The report calls on the FDA to make these flexibilities permanent and for Congress to enact new laws that would strengthen, modernize and diversify clinical trial participation.
The AACR continues to advocate for these important initiatives. To learn more about the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care, please visit aacr.org/COVIDReport.
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