Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors Don't Increase Death Risk for COVID-19 Cancer Patients

Sharon Worcester

August 07, 2020

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Immune checkpoint inhibition was not associated with an increased mortality risk from COVID-19 in patients with cancer in an international observational study.

The study included 113 cancer patients who had laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 within 12 months of receiving immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. The patients did not receive chemotherapy within 3 months of testing positive for COVID-19.

In all, 33 patients were admitted to the hospital, including 6 who were admitted to the ICU, and 9 patients died.

"Nine out of 113 patients is a mortality rate of 8%, which is in the middle of the earlier reported rates for cancer patients in general [7.6%-12%]," said Aljosja Rogiers, MD, PhD, of the Melanoma Institute Australia in Sydney.

COVID-19 was the primary cause of death in seven of the patients, including three of those who were admitted to the ICU, Dr. Rogiers noted.

He reported these results during the AACR virtual meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer.

Study Details

Patients in this study were treated at 19 hospitals in North America, Europe, and Australia, and the data cutoff was May 15, 2020. Most patients (64%) were treated in Europe, which was the epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of data collection, Dr. Rogiers noted. A third of patients were in North America, and 3% were in Australia.

The patients' median age was 63 years (range, 27-86 years). Most patients were men (65%), and most had Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance scores of 0-1 (90%).

The most common malignancies were melanoma (57%), non–small cell lung cancer (17%), and renal cell carcinoma (9%). Treatment was for early cancer in 26% of patients and for advanced cancer in 74%. Comorbidities included cardiovascular disease in 27% of patients, diabetes in 15%, pulmonary disease in 12%, and renal disease in 5%.

Immunosuppressive therapy equivalent to a prednisone dose of 10 mg or greater daily was given in 13% of patients, and other immunosuppressive therapies, such as infliximab, were given in 3%.

Among the 60% of patients with COVID-19 symptoms, 68% had fever, 59% had cough, 34% had dyspnea, and 15% had myalgia. Most of the 40% of asymptomatic patients were tested because they had COVID-19–positive contact, Dr. Rogiers noted.

Immune checkpoint inhibitor treatment included monotherapy with a programmed death–1/PD–ligand 1 inhibitor in 82% of patients, combination anti-PD-1 and anti-CTLA4 therapy in 13%, and other therapy — usually a checkpoint inhibitor combined with a different type of targeted agent — in 5%.

At the time of COVID-19 diagnosis, 30% of patients had achieved a partial response, complete response, or had no evidence of disease, 18% had stable disease, and 15% had progression. Response data were not available in 37% of cases, usually because treatment was only recently started prior to COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Rogiers said.

Treatments administered for COVID-19 included antibiotic therapy in 25% of patients, oxygen therapy in 20%, glucocorticoids in 10%, antiviral drugs in 6%, and intravenous immunoglobulin or anti–interleukin-6 in 2% each.

Among patients admitted to the ICU, 3% required mechanical ventilation, 2% had vasopressin, and 1% received renal replacement therapy.

At the data cutoff, 20 of 33 hospitalized patients (61%) had been discharged, and 4 (12%) were still in the hospital.

Mortality Results

Nine patients died. The rate of death was 8% overall and 27% among hospitalized patients.

"The mortality rate of COVID-19 in the general population without comorbidities is about 1.4%," Dr. Rogiers said. "For cancer patients, this is reported to be in the range of 7.6%-12%. To what extent patients on immune checkpoint inhibition are at a higher risk of mortality is currently unknown."

Theoretically, immune checkpoint inhibition could either mitigate or exacerbate COVID-19 infection. It has been hypothesized that immune checkpoint inhibitors could increase the risk of severe acute lung injury or other complications of COVID-19, Dr. Rogiers said, explaining the rationale for the study.

The study shows that the patients who died had a median age of 72 years (range, 49-81 years), which is slightly higher than the median overall age of 63 years. Six patients were from North America, and three were from Italy.

"Two melanoma patients and two non–small cell lung cancer patients died," Dr. Rogiers said. He noted that two other deaths were in patients with renal cell carcinoma, and three deaths were in other cancer types. All patients had advanced or metastatic disease.

Given that 57% of patients in the study had melanoma and 17% had NSCLC, this finding may indicate that COVID-19 has a slightly higher mortality rate in NSCLC patients than in melanoma patients, but the numbers are small, Dr. Rogiers said.

Notably, six of the patients who died were not admitted to the ICU. In four cases, this was because of underlying malignancy; in the other two cases, it was because of a constrained health care system, Dr. Rogiers said.

Overall, the findings show that the mortality rate of patients with COVID-19 and cancer treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors is similar to the mortality rate reported in the general cancer population, Dr. Rogiers said.

"Treatment with immune checkpoint inhibition does not seem to pose an additional mortality risk for cancer patients with COVID-19," he concluded.

Dr. Rogiers reported having no conflicts of interest. There was no funding disclosed for the study.

American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2020: Abstract S02-01. Presented online July 20-22, 2020.

Sharon Worcester can be contacted at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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