COVID-19 Vaccination in Patients With Cancer: NCCN Outlines Priorities

Sharon Worcester

February 02, 2021

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

All patients receiving active cancer treatment should receive a COVID-19 vaccine and should be prioritized for vaccination, according to preliminary recommendations from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).

Vaccination timing considerations vary based on factors such as cancer and treatment type, and reasons for delaying vaccination in the general public also apply to cancer patients (recent COVID-19 exposure, for example).

In general, however, patients with cancer should be assigned to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention priority group 1 b/c and immunized when vaccination is available to them, the guidelines state. Exceptions to this recommendation include:

  • Patients undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplant or receiving engineered cellular therapy such as chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy. Vaccination should be delayed for at least 3 months in these patients to maximize vaccine efficacy. Caregivers of these patients, however, should be immunized when possible.

  • Patients with hematologic malignancies who are receiving intensive cytotoxic chemotherapy, such as cytarabine- or anthracycline-based regimens for acute myeloid leukemia. Vaccination in these patients should be delayed until absolute neutrophil count recovery.

  • Patients undergoing major surgery. Vaccination should occur at least a few days before or after surgery.

  • Patients who have experienced a severe or immediate adverse reaction to any of the ingredients in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

Conversely, vaccination should occur when available in patients with hematologic malignancies and marrow failure who are expected to have limited or no recovery, patients with hematologic malignancies who are on long-term maintenance therapy, and patients with solid tumors who are receiving cytotoxic chemotherapy, targeted therapy, checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapy, or radiotherapy.

Caregivers, household contacts, and other close contacts who are 16 years of age and older should be vaccinated whenever they are eligible.

Unique Concerns in Patients With Cancer

The NCCN recommendations were developed to address the unique issues and concerns with respect to patients with cancer, who have an increased risk of severe illness from SARS-CoV-2 infection. But the guidelines come with a caveat: "[t]here are limited safety and efficacy data in these patients," the NCCN emphasized in a press statement.

"Right now, there is urgent need and limited data," Steven Pergam, MD, co-leader of the NCCN COVID-19 Vaccination Committee, said in the statement.

"Our number one goal is helping to get the vaccine to as many people as we can," Pergam said. "That means following existing national and regional directions for prioritizing people who are more likely to face death or severe illness from COVID-19."

Pergam, associate professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, further explained that "people receiving active cancer treatment are at greater risk for worse outcomes from COVID-19, particularly if they are older and have additional comorbidities, like immunosuppression."

NCCN's recommendations couldn't have come at a better time for patients with cancer, according to Nora Disis, MD, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"The NCCN's recommendations to prioritize COVID vaccinations for cancer patients on active treatment is an important step forward in protecting our patients from the infection," Disis said in an interview.

"Cancer patients may be at higher risk for the complications seen with infection. In addition, cancer is a disease of older people, and a good number of our patients have the comorbidities that would predict a poorer outcome if they should become sick," Disis added. "With the correct treatment, many patients with cancer will be long-term survivors. It is important that they be protected from infection with COVID to realize their best outcome."

Additional Vaccine Considerations

The NCCN recommendations also address several other issues of importance for cancer patients, including:

  • Deprioritizing other vaccines. COVID-19 vaccines should take precedence over other vaccines because data on dual vaccination are lacking. The NCCN recommends waiting 14 days after COVID-19 vaccination to deliver other vaccines.

  • Vaccinating clinical trial participants. Trial leads should be consulted to prevent protocol violations or exclusions.

  • Decision-making in the setting of limited vaccine availability. The NCCN noted that decisions on allocation must be made in accordance with state and local vaccine guidance but suggests prioritizing appropriate patients on active treatment, those planning to start treatment, and those who have just completed treatment. Additional risk factors for these patients, as well as other factors associated with risk for adverse COVID-19 outcomes, should also be considered. These include advanced age, comorbidities, and adverse social and demographic factors such as poverty and limited health care access.

  • The need for ongoing prevention measures. Vaccines have been shown to decrease the incidence of COVID-19 and related complications, but it remains unclear whether vaccines prevent infection and subsequent transmission. This means everyone should continue following prevention recommendations, such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

The NCCN stressed that these recommendations are "intended to be a living document that is constantly evolving – it will be updated rapidly whenever new data comes out, as well as any potential new vaccines that may get approved in the future." The NCCN also noted that the advisory committee will meet regularly to refine the recommendations as needed.

Pergam disclosed relationships with Chimerix Inc., Merck & Co., Global Life Technologies Inc., and Sanofi-Aventis. Disis disclosed grants from Pfizer, Bavarian Nordisk, Janssen, and Precigen. She is the founder of EpiThany and editor-in-chief of JAMA Oncology.

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

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