04 May 2022

The Omicron COVID-19 variant has led to a growing number of breakthrough infections among people undergoing cancer treatment, an Austrian study has found.

The researchers from MedUni Vienna say their findings show that maintaining protective measures and continuing the development of vaccines adapted to virus variants is important.

For this study, 3,959 patients who are or have been treated for cancer at University Hospital Vienna and at the Franz Tappeiner Hospital in Merano, Italy, were involved. 923 (23%) had a haematological malignancy, and 85% of the cancer patients had received at least one EU-authorised COVID-19 vaccination.

Writing in the journal Cancer Cell, the team reports that between February 2020 and February 2022, 950 of the 3,959 cancer patients (24%) had become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

However, the number of breakthrough infections increased significantly with the emergence of the Omicron variant in January 2022; 70% of infected patients had been vaccinated.

Breakthrough infections were significantly more common among those who were undergoing systemic treatment than among those without ongoing cancer therapy.

The research team looked at the concentration of protective antibodies in the blood in samples from 78 cancer patients and 25 healthy individuals. They found that, both in people with solid tumours and blood cancers, there was greatly reduced inhibition of the Omicron variant by specific vaccine antibodies compared with people without cancer.

Vaccinated individuals who were hospitalised tended to require shorter hospital stays compared to unvaccinated patients, while intensive medical care was needed only in rare cases.

Study director Matthias Preusser, head of the division of oncology at the Department of Medicine I at MedUni Vienna and University Hospital Vienna, said: “The increasing rates of breakthrough infections and hospitalisations of vaccinated cancer patients associated with Omicron underscore the need for further protective measures not only to effectively combat the ongoing pandemic, but also to prepare for the potential emergence of additional SARS-CoV-2 variants.

“Vaccines adapted to the particular SARS-CoV-2 variant could help to better protect cancer patients and maintain life-sustaining cancer treatment during the pandemic.”

Source: Mair MJ, Mitterer M, Gattinger P, Berger JM, Trutschnig W, Bathke AC, Gansterer M, Berghoff AS, Laengle S, Gottmann L, Buratti T, Haslacher H, Lamm WW, Raderer M, Tobudic S, Fuereder T, Valenta R, Fong D, Preusser M. (2022) “Enhanced SARS-CoV-2 breakthrough infections in patients with hematologic and solid cancers due to Omicron.” Cancer Cell, doi:10.1016/j.ccell.2022.04.003

Link: https://www.cell.com/cancer-cell/fulltext/S1535-6108(22)00165-9

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