The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) continues to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation and is currently exploring various initiatives and collaborations to assess the impact of the disease on cancer and cancer prevention. Studies to investigate the effects of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) on cancer mortality and survival are being considered together with IARC’s international partners. Some of IARC’s contributions at the intersection of cancer and COVID-19 are described here.
- COVID-19 and Cancer Taskforce
IARC has joined the global COVID-19 and Cancer Taskforce to help coordinate efforts to synthesize and rapidly disseminate data on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting cancer outcomes worldwide. Together with other leading organizations, IARC has posted a Call for Expressions of Interest for researchers interested in joining a modelling consortium that can help quantify the impact of the pandemic on cancer outcomes, resulting from disruptions in the delivery of preventive, screening, and therapeutic interventions.
- Survey of cancer registries worldwide to assess impacts
IARC is sending out a survey to population-based cancer registries worldwide through the International Association of Cancer Registries (IACR), the professional society of registries for which IARC provides the Secretariat. The aim of the survey is to assess the short-term and longer-term impacts of the pandemic on registry operations and subsequent data dissemination in different settings.
- Potential genetic susceptibility to infection and progression
IARC researchers have shared genetic data from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and epigenomic data from epigenome-wide association studies (EWAS) from all of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study cohorts in Italy with researchers in Turin, who are using these data to investigate potential genetic susceptibility to infection with the COVID-19 virus and progression of the disease.
- App to track COVID-19 symptoms and diagnoses
IARC experts are also taking part in research initiatives on the implementation of a smart device application to track COVID-19 symptoms and diagnoses in all EPIC study centres, via an application that was developed by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University and is being applied to many cohorts within the COronavirus Pandemic Epidemiology (COPE) Consortium.
- BCNet training for facilities processing samples for COVID-19 testing
Many biobanks and laboratory facilities that collaborate with IARC on research on cancer in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have been asked to stop their normal operations in order to process samples for COVID-19 testing. IARC has significant experience in providing safety training to laboratory technicians, and the Agency provides training on mitigating the risks of handling potentially pathogenic samples. For example, IARC organized webinars to train members of the LMICs Biobank and Cohort Building Network (BCNet) in Kenya and Nigeria using its online Biobanking Learning platform, and relevant information on COVID-19 has been provided by BCNet partner institutions to all BCNet members.
- Questionnaire about changes in laboratory and biobanking requirements
The Biobanking and BioMolecular resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) and the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) have joined forces to document the changes in laboratory and biobanking requirements during this period. IARC researchers were part of the team that designed the questionnaire, which has been distributed globally. A publication is expected later this year, after the results have been analysed.
- Digital pathology platform
The Alliance for Digital Pathology, which includes the United States National Cancer Institute, Harvard University, and the International Collaboration for Cancer Classification and Research (IC3R), is creating a digital pathology platform, available online, to curate pathology-related information. IARC is in discussions to collaborate on this initiative, along with other international organizations.
- Scientific publications on related topics
IARC researchers are currently collaborating on several scientific publications on a variety of related topics, such as “Healthcare leadership opportunities and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic” and “Anti-cancer drugs and COVID-19 therapies: how should the oncologist proceed?”, as well as on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the practice of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery.
- Collaboration for pilot study on cervical cancer screening in Uzbekistan
The implementation of cervical cancer screening in countries with fragile health systems will be endangered for a long period. IARC, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the French Embassy in Uzbekistan have joined forces to support Uzbekistan in running a pilot study of cervical cancer screening, with the aim of introducing human papillomavirus (HPV) testing as a screening method in the country. Preparatory work has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic through online consultations, with discussions focusing on development of the piloting scheme, assessment of different HPV test platforms and identification of the most effective option for Uzbekistan, and collection of information on demographic profiles of pilot areas. The pilot study is expected to lead to the launch of the national cervical cancer screening programme.
- Impacts on cancer screening programmes
IARC is also planning to conduct a study to assess the impact of the pandemic on cancer screening programmes in LMICs that have made significant efforts in the past few years to improve the organization of their screening programmes, for example Bangladesh, Belarus, Colombia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Zambia.
- Ethical implications of the pandemic
The IARC Ethics Committee will study the short-term and medium- to long-term ethical implications of the pandemic within the context of IARC’s areas of research.
- Technical assistance to the French National Cancer Institute
IARC is providing technical assistance to the French National Cancer Institute (INCa) in its efforts to monitor the scientific literature at the intersection of COVID-19 and cancer.
- COVID-19 and the role of new technologies in public health practices
IARC and researchers from partner institutions have published articles looking at health systems responses during the COVID-19 pandemic and elaborating on how the current lessons learned can be used to transform health care in the post-coronavirus era. “Healthcare transformation in the post-coronavirus pandemic era” outlines areas in which the pandemic has already accelerated the adoption and acceptability of data- and technology-driven solutions. “Global health and data-driven policies for emergency responses to infectious disease outbreaks” focuses on issues of data sharing, including current and envisioned digital solutions to improve access to data.