The COVID pandemic has led to major setbacks in cancer research

Global pandemic means big setback for cancer research


Published: Jan 13, 2021 at 10:11 AM EST

The numbers are clear – the coronavirus pandemic created a significant setback in the war on cancer. A report from Boston 25 News says the medical community has understandably been focused on research and treatment of COVID-19 since the outbreak began. And that means many potentially lifesaving cancer research projects are on the back burner until COVID is under control.


In the Spring of 2020, important cancer research came to a screeching halt when many of the labs doing the work were forced to shut down. The pandemic forced several clinical trials to be scrapped or delayed.

“There’s a real human consequence here because cancer doesn’t wait,” Dr. Rebecca Heist of Massachusetts General Hospital told Boston 25 News.

And while many research projects and trials have been reinstated, most medical experts agree that lost time could be costly. The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London reported scientific advances could be set back by as many as 18 months.


When the second wave hit later in 2020, more surges of COVID gripped the United States. Dr. Heist says that didn’t make things any easier. “We are trying to maintain all the resources that we need, and the staffing that we need, in order to keep the clinical trials going so our patients can continue to enroll in them,” she remarked at the time. “Certainly, in the immediate couple of months coming up, it looks to be very, very trying times.”

And even if COVID becomes less of a health concern someday, Dr. Heist says these delays in cancer research will have created a lot of uncertainty. “Even when you make up time, you can’t create lost time. I think we all feel a sense of urgency in the cancer world, where we know that frankly, today is too late. We needed things discovered yesterday.”


To add to the problem, the pandemic also made fundraising a much bigger challenge. And without money – and lots of it – cancer research just can’t happen.

The news report cited Dr. Mark Goldberg, who sits on the national board of directors for the American Cancer Society (ACS), who said the leading organization behind cancer research fundraising wasn’t able to support nearly as many endeavors as normal during the height of the pandemic.

“The pandemic led to over a $200 million decrease in fundraising for the American Cancer Society (in 2020), which is over 30% of the overall budget,” noted Dr. Goldberg.


The ACS board member also told Boston 25 News the pandemic’s effect reaches beyond cancer research and fund development. He worries it is impacting patients directly as they delay or completely avoid routine preventative care.

“Between March and July of 2020, screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer had decreased anywhere from 56-85%,” said Dr. Goldberg.

In fact, the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science found supporting data for this by examining insurance claims filed between April and June 2020. A report published in the Summer of 2020 estimated that, in the United States alone, about 22 million screening tests were disrupted during that time.


Ultimately, the long-term impact of COVID-19 has many physicians nervous for future cancer patients. The delay for clinical trials will undoubtedly set back any groundbreaking research that might have helped change the game.

On top of that, a lack of preventative care means patients may not be diagnosed until they’ve reached a more advanced stage of cancer. That means they’ll be harder to treat and the outcomes won’t be as good.

Despite the obstacles, there is optimism among some researchers that they’ll be able to take away a few positives from what they’ve learned.

“COVID-19 has forced some changes in how we work that are for the better,” says Professor Emma Hall, Deputy Director of the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit at the ICR. “I hope we can use this experience to benefit cancer patients in the long term.”