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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Doctors are concerned the coronavirus pandemic is going to lead to an uptick in cancer incidence and deaths — and exacerbate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities seen with the disease.

Why it matters: The U.S. has made recent advances in lowering cancer deaths — including narrowing the gap between different race and ethnicities in both incidence and death rates. But the pandemic could render some of these advances moot.

"This pandemic has had, and will continue to have, this compounding effect on cancer and cancer disparities. For example, a lot of the under-resourced safety net hospitals are being significantly stressed by the pandemic. ... And these facilities are actually where many underrepresented minorities and medically underserved patients get their cancer care."
— John Carpten, professor and department chair at University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, tells Axios

Driving the news: The American Association for Cancer Research on Wednesday released its first annual cancer disparities progress report, which dives deep into the complex factors surrounding this issue, and also looks at the similarities between COVID-19 and cancer disparities. They found:

  • The burden of COVID-19 falls disproportionately on racial and ethnic minority groups. For example, Hispanics, who are about 18% of the U.S. population, account for 34% of COVID-19 cases.
  • Social determinants of health — such as where a person lives, works and obtains food and the ability to get access to health care — and underlying health conditions affect a person's risk. For example, urban Medicare recipients have a three times higher rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 than rural Medicare recipients.
  • Researchers are investigating the role that biological or genetic factors may play in the severity of complications in COVID-19 patients. One such question is whether there's a higher risk in African Americans with asthma who have higher levels of two proteins (ACE2 and TMPRSS2) needed for SARS-CoV-2 infection of cells.
  • The report also found various barriers to timely COVID-19 testing in underserved communities.

Threat level: National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless told scientists at a July roundtable that just looking at two cancers (breast and colorectal), there will likely be 10,000 additional deaths over the next decade due to the drop in screening and treatments during the pandemic.

  • "One thing we're very worried about in particular is the impact of hospital closures and reduced clinical capacity on patients with cancer, the reductions in screenings, the reductions in patient care," Sharpless said.
  • Carpten, who also is chair of both the report's steering committee and the AACR Minorities in Cancer Research Council, agrees. "If you had to put off your diagnosis by even six months, that cancer could grow and progress and maybe even metastasize in that timeframe."

Cancer research has also seen an "unprecedented disruption" from the pandemic, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has said. A significant portion of private and public research into multiple illnesses, including cancer, has been diverted to tackling the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Sharpless said the research and medical communities need to take action against racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities.

  • "As cancer researchers, we each have a role to play in confronting systemic racism and injustice ... [we can] commit to taking action to make things better in terms of cancer disparities and the diversity of our workforce," Sharpless said.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Dec 25, 2020 - World

Chile becomes first South American country to start COVID vaccination

Nurse receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Santiago, Chile. Photo: David Lillo/Ministerio de Salud de Chile via Getty Images

Chile became the first country in South America to begin coronavirus vaccinations on Thursday after receiving its first 10,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses, Reuters reports.

The big picture: The country bought 10 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and is expected to receive 240,000 doses in January, per Reuters.

Dec 25, 2020 - Health

Scientists suspect compound in allergic reactions to Pfizer vaccine

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Scientists believe the compound polyethylene glycol — known as PEG — is to blame for the reported allergic reactions to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Driving the news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified six allergic reactions to the vaccine out of the 272,001 doses given through Dec. 19.

Major companies vow to train, hire Afghan refugees arriving in U.S.

Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Global Citizen

More than 30 major companies have promised to hire and train Afghan refugees coming to the U.S., per a press release from the Tent Partnership for Refugees, the group spearheading the effort.

The big picture: The 33 companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Pfizer and UPS, are joining the Tent Coalition for Afghan Refugees, a coalition founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of yogurt and food company Chobani.