Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors Have No Harmful Effect on Patients with Cancer and COVID-19

October 2020, Vol 11, No 5

One question on oncologists’ minds these days is whether treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors in patients with cancer has a negative effect on COVID-19 disease. So far, the data have not shown a deleterious effect, but the definitive answer is unknown. In fact, some experts think immune checkpoint inhibitors may have a positive effect on COVID-19.

“To what extent immune checkpoint inhibition affects COVID-19 infection in patients with cancer is unclear. Theoretically, inhibition could either mitigate or exacerbate COVID-19 infection. We designed a study to help us answer this question,” lead author Aljosja Rogiers, PhD, Cameron Medical Oncology Fellow, Melanoma Institute Australia, Sydney.

Mortality Rate Not Affected

The results of a multicenter, retrospective analysis presented at the July 2020 AACR virtual meeting on COVID-19 and cancer showed that immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy did not increase the risk for mortality in patients with COVID-19 and cancer. The risk for mortality in those receiving immune checkpoint inhibitors was 8%.

“This is similar to the mortality rate in the general cancer population [with COVID-19], which is reported to be in the range of 7.6% to 12%,” said Dr Rogiers.

None of the 9 deaths that occurred during the study period was related to immune checkpoint inhibitors. All 9 patients had advanced cancer, and 7 patients died from COVID-19–related complications.

“The question of whether immune checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapy worsens outcomes in cancer patients with COVID-19 is being studied. Data so far suggest that they likely do not do worse than other cancer patients, and they may even do better,” said AACR President-Elect and Program Committee Chair of this meeting, David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, Director, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center, NY. Dr Tuveson was not involved in the study presented by Dr Rogiers.

Confirmed COVID-19 Disease

The study presented by Dr Rogiers included 113 patients with cancer who received treatment at 19 centers in North America, Europe, or Australia, had laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection, and received immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy after testing positive for COVID-19.

The majority (82%) of the patients received treatment with 1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, 13% of patients received an immune checkpoint inhibitor plus a CTLA-4 inhibitor, and 5% of patients received a different immunotherapy. None of the patients in the study received chemotherapy.

The patients’ median age was 63 years, and 65% were male. A total of 74% of the patients had advanced cancer. The overwhelming majority (90%) of the patients had an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance status score of 0 or 1.

Overall, 60% of the patients were symptomatic for COVID-19 disease. The most common COVID-19–related symptoms were fever (68%), cough (59%), dyspnea (34%), and myalgia (15%).

Additional comorbidities included cardiovascular (27%), complications of diabetes (15%), pulmonary conditions (12%), and renal complications (5%).


In all, 29% of the patients were admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 disease and received treatment with antibiotics (25%), oxygen therapy (20%), glucocorticoids (10%), antivirals (6%), intravenous immunoglobulin (6%), and interleukin-6 (2%). In addition, 5% of the patients were admitted to the intensive care unit, where 3% received mechanical ventilation and 2% received vasopressin.

A total of 61% of the patients were discharged from the hospital; 12% remained in the hospital, and 27% (9) of those who were admitted to the hospital died by the time of data cutoff.

“Although the numbers of types of cancer in those who died were small, it appeared that COVID-19 has a slightly higher rate of mortality in patients with non–small-cell lung cancer compared with melanoma,” Dr Rogiers pointed out.

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