Experts Offer Roadmap for Treating CLL During the Pandemic

Victoria Stern, MA

December 23, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in standard treatment protocols for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). These patients already face a greater risk of dying from infections, and recent research suggests they tend to have risk factors that increase their likelihood of complications and death from COVID-19.

In August, a group of oncologists from the United States and Europe published a literature-informed expert opinion to help their colleagues navigate this new CLL treatment landscape. It offers a roadmap for balancing patients' therapeutic needs against their risk for viral infection and outlines the safest course of action for patients who test positive for COVID-19.

Dr Mazyar Shadman

Medscape reached out to one of the authors of this expert opinion, Mazyar Shadman, MD, MPH, an associate professor in the Clinical Research Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Division of Medical Oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle, Washington, to break down what clinicians need to know about treating CLL during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Medscape: What prompted you and colleagues from the United States and Europe to write these recommendations?

Shadman: When we began the collaboration earlier this year, our colleagues in Italy and the rest of Europe had more experience with COVID-19, so they led the effort. We wanted to help oncologists manage their patients with CLL during the pandemic, based on the evidence we had at the time and the unknowns we faced.

What's an example of how the available evidence informed your recommendations?

At the time, we didn't know whether patients with CLL were more likely to get COVID-19 compared to the general population, but we did have evidence already that cancer increases patients' risk of bad outcomes and death from COVID-19. CLL, for example, can increase risk factors for infection, including hypogammaglobulinemia, innate immune dysfunction, and neutropenia, which may be exacerbated by anticancer treatments. Patients' existing immune suppression might prevent or delay their ability to react to or cope with the virus. And many patients with CLL have other conditions that increase their risk of a severe response to COVID-19, including older age (70% of CLL patients are older than 65 years), hypertension (21%), and diabetes (26%).

These factors informed our recommendations to limit patients' exposure to COVID-19 by reducing or postponing the number of in-person visits and routine in-hospital follow-ups, especially if they could be substituted with virtual check-ins.

The expert opinion recommendations are divided into three main categories: patients who are newly diagnosed with CLL but have not begun receiving therapy, those already receiving therapy but are free of COVID-19, and those who test positive for COVID-19. Let's start with the first category. What do the recommendations say about waiting vs proceeding for newly diagnosed patients?

Our priority was balancing the negative impacts of getting COVID-19 with the negative impacts of postponing cancer treatment. We suggested taking each new CLL case on a patient-by-patient basis to determine who needed treatment tomorrow and who could wait a few weeks or months. Fortunately, CLL rarely requires immediate therapy, so the preference was to postpone treatment a few weeks, depending on the local COVID-19 outbreak situation.

In my practice, for instance, we tried to postpone visits as much as we could. Before the pandemic, patients with CLL in the watch-and-wait phase — those diagnosed but who don't require treatment immediately — would come in for bloodwork and exams every 3 to 6 months. But when the pandemic hit, we skipped 3-month visits for patients with stable lab results and switched to telehealth visits instead. For those who needed blood draws, we used local labs closer to the patient's home to minimize their exposure and transportation requirements.

When treatment cannot be deferred, we recommended starting patients on therapies that require fewer in-person visits and are less immune suppressive. We recommended oncologists consider Bruton tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitors, such as ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, as well as venetoclax. Some research suggests these inhibitors may be protective against COVID-19 by blunting a patient's hyperinflammatory response to the virus. These drugs also require minimal routine treatment and lab visits, which helps limit patients' potential exposure to COVID-19.

But there are risks to waiting. Even during the peak of the pandemic here in Seattle, if patients needed treatment immediately, we did not delay. Patients with significant drops in their platelet or neutrophil count or those with bulky disease, for instance, do require therapy.

It's important to mention that we did have bad experiences with patients who needed immediate treatment and their treating physicians decided to wait because of COVID-19 risks. These patients who came in with aggressive CLL and experienced delays in care had much more complicated CLL treatment than if they had started treatment earlier.

When organ function became abnormal, for example, some patients could no longer receive certain therapies. If someone's kidney function becomes abnormal, I wouldn't recommend giving a drug like venetoclax. Although rare, some patients on venetoclax develop tumor lysis syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure.

Bottom line: don't just assume it's a low-grade disease and that you can wait.

What about patients already receiving treatment for CLL who are free of COVID-19?

For patients on active treatment, we suggested stopping or holding treatment with monoclonal antibodies, such as rituximab and obinutuzumab, and chemotherapy regimens, such as idelalisib plus rituximab and duvelisib, when possible. We recommended oncologists consider continuing treatment for patients on BTK inhibitors.

What happens if a patient with CLL tests positive for COVID-19?

If a patient tests positive for COVID-19 but is not yet on CLL treatment, we recommend postponing CLL care until they've recovered from the infection. If a patient is already receiving treatment, the recommendations are similar to those above for COVID-19-negative patients: delay care for those on chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies, but consider continuing treatment for patients on BTK inhibitors.

The expert opinion was submitted in May and ultimately published in August. How has our understanding of treating CLL during the pandemic changed since then? Would you change any recommendations?

When we published this paper, it was still early on in the pandemic, and we didn't know as much about COVID-19 and CLL as we do now. Since we published the recommendations, we have received confirmation from several studies that patients with cancer have a more complicated course of COVID-19 and have worse outcomes. But I believe the recommendations we devised early in the pandemic still hold now. Decisions about delivering treatment should be influenced by the local COVID-19 numbers and hospital resources as well as the patient's specific situation — whether they have more stable disease and can delay or postpone care or whether they need more immediate attention.

With a further surge in cases predicted as we move even deeper into flu season, what would you recommend for initiating treatment in newly diagnosed patients?

The pandemic has created a very fluid situation for treating CLL. What's happening now in Seattle may not be the same story in New York, California, or elsewhere. In early November [when Medscape first spoke to Shadman], in Seattle, we were not postponing care because our COVID-19 numbers were fairly good. But, as of mid December, that is starting to change as the COVID-19 numbers fluctuate.

If we do experience a second peak of COVID-19 cases, we would need to modify our practice as we did during the initial surge earlier this year. That would mean avoiding treatment with monoclonal antibodies and chemotherapy, minimizing blood draws and drugs that require frequent in-person visits.

How important is it for patients to be vaccinated against COVID-19?

There are two key things to consider about a vaccine. Is the vaccine safe from the general safety standpoint that everyone is worried about? And if the vaccine is not harmful, will it work in patients will CLL?

Because we don't yet know the complete side-effect profile of a COVID-19 vaccine, we would need to assess each patient's condition to limit adverse reactions and to see whether the vaccine alters a patient's immune response to the CLL drug they're taking.

At the University of Washington, we have a plan to start studying the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in patients with CLL — carefully assessing patients' response to the vaccine in terms of antibody response. We already know, based on small studies, that the antibody response to the flu vaccine, for instance, is not as strong in patients with CLL compared to those without. But, overall, as long as the vaccine won't cause harm, I would recommend my patients get it.

Shadman has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Victoria Stern, MA, is science journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has also appeared in Scientific American MIND, Retraction Watch, General Surgery News, and the health policy podcast Tradeoffs.

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