Opinion | Healthcare

Biden shouldn't let defeating cancer take a backseat to COVID

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

 As a new administration takes office in Washington, obviously the focus will rightly be on the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought the nation to its knees. President Joe Biden and Congress will no doubt announce steps to try to control the negative impact of COVID through healthcare policies and economic measures. But cancer should not be neglected. Progress in the fight against cancer will be stunted for a generation unless swift action is taken.

The situation is grave. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on cancer care and research. Treatments have been delayed (which can be a death sentence for cancer patients) and groundbreaking research has been pushed back years, as labs struggle to regain momentum stymied by shutdowns and scientists ponder other career options.

The full accounting of the destruction that has already taken place won't be known for some time. According to data released last week by the American Cancer Society, nearly 2 million new cancer cases and over 600,000 cancer deaths would be projected to occur in 2021 without taking into account the negative outcomes COVID-19 is having on cancer diagnoses and outcomes. Because of COVID-19, these numbers will be substantially worse than predicted, potentially reversing a steady decline in cancer mortality that we have seen since the early 1990s. That's why we must act now.

To ensure that the toll on cancer patients now and in the future does not become insurmountable, it is urgent that government and philanthropic funders of cancer research align to provide more flexibility in awarding and managing grants with respect to deadlines and termination dates, as well as to offer extended and new funding mechanisms that empower investigators to overcome delays caused by hampered access to labs since March 2020. We should also look to temporarily ease stringent requirements for extensive preliminary data in upcoming grant applications, which would be impossible to produce in this environment.

President Biden has made immigration reform a Day One priority. This relates to cancer as well. To preserve the high caliber of academic research that the U.S. is known for, we will need to be proactive in sustaining our current and future scientific talent pipeline by clearing barriers and earmarking funding so we can incentivize and recruit the most innovative thinkers in the U.S. and across the globe as well as empower postdoctoral investigators who have been stuck in limbo due to visa issues and halted job searches. 

Collaboration on these fronts is key and it will be critical to involve pharmaceutical and biotech companies in these efforts because the impacts of the pandemic could cripple their future innovation programs. Toward that goal, we should stimulate partnerships and create incentives for companies to more vigorously invest in earlier stage, higher risk research and fast-track emerging academic diagnostic and drug development efforts that have experienced setbacks.

The incoming administration should immediately convene a task force on cancer care and research so that the recommendations above can be expanded upon and implemented.

The challenges facing our country are enormous. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every American deeply and has taken the lives of over 400,000 of our fellow citizens. We are thankful that the miracle of science has brought to the fore vaccines that will enable us to eventually put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.

When that hopeful moment arrives, let's make sure we don't face a crisis in cancer. Together, we can stop it from happening.

Michele Cleary is the CEO of the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research

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