Are cancer patients on immunotherapy at a greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection?

Are cancer patients on immunotherapy at a greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection?

4 February 2021

New research, led by Melanoma Institute Australia, has revealed that cancer patients treated with immunotherapy are not at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 infection compared to other cancer patients.

With more than 100 million* global cases of COVID-19 infection and the pandemic ongoing, this important finding will have implications for clinical decision-making in patients being treated with immunotherapy for cancer, including melanoma.

‘Previous studies have found that cancer patients infected with COVID-19 are more likely to develop a severe form of the illness and succumb to the disease compared to those without cancer,’ said first study author Dr Aljosja Rogiers, MIA’s Cameron Medical Oncology Fellow. ‘However, it was not known if patients with cancer on immunotherapy would have an increased or decreased risk of severe COVID-19, and this warranted investigation.’

Immunotherapy works by releasing the brakes on the immune system so that it can effectively target and destroy cancer cells. Knowing that immune cells can help fight viruses too meant that it was theoretically possible that immunotherapy may be helpful in reducing the severity of COVID-19 in patients with cancer.

However, immune cells release cytokines which increases inflammation: this has the potential to make the course of a COVID-19 infection worse. This clinical conundrum needed to be investigated to help guide treatment choices for clinicians during the pandemic.

Together with their international collaborators, the researchers found that treatment with immunotherapy does not further increase the risk of developing severe COVID-19 infection in patients with cancer. Their findings were recently published in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer.

Publication: Rogiers A, Pires da Silva I, Tentori C, Tondini CA, Grimes JM, Trager MH, Nahm S, Zubiri L, Manos M, Bowling P, Elkrief A, Papneja N, Vitale MG, Rose AAN, Borgers JSW, Roy S, Mangana J, Pimentel Muniz T, Cooksley T, Lupu J, Vaisman A, Saibil SD, Butler MO, Menzies AM, Carlino MS, Erdmann M, Berking C, Zimmer L, Schadendorf D, Pala L, Queirolo P, Posch C, Hauschild A, Dummer R, Haanen J, Blank CU, Robert C, Sullivan RJ, Ascierto PA, Miller WH Jr, Stephen Hodi F, Suijkerbuijk KPM, Reynolds KL, Rahma OE, Lorigan PC, Carvajal RD, Lo S, Mandala M, Long GV. Clinical impact of COVID-19 on patients with cancer treated with immune checkpoint inhibition.  J Immunother Cancer. 2021 Jan;9(1):e001931.


*Update data from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. COVID-19 Map. Available: [Accessed 3 Feb 2021].