The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic poses significant risks to leukemia patients and their providers, impacting every aspect of care from diagnosis through therapy, according to an editorial letter published online in Leukemia Research.

This image shows a Wright's stained bone marrow aspirate smear from a patient with precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. VashiDonsk/Creative Commons/CC ASA 3.0

This image shows a Wright's stained bone marrow aspirate smear from a patient with precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

One key concern to be considered is the risk of missed or delayed diagnosis due to the pandemic conditions. An estimated 50%-75% of patients with acute leukemia are febrile at diagnosis and this puts them at high risk of a misdiagnosis of COVID-19 upon initial evaluation. As with other oncological conditions (primary mediastinal lymphoma or lung cancer, for example), which often present with a cough with or without fever, their symptoms “are likely to be considered trivial after a negative SARS-CoV-2 test,” with patients then being sent home without further assessment. In a rapidly progressing disease such as acute leukemia, this could lead to critical delays in therapeutic intervention.

The authors, from the Service and Central Laboratory of Hematology, Lausanne (Switzerland) University Hospital, also discussed the problems that might occur with regard to most standard forms of therapy. In particular, they addressed potential impacts of the pandemic on chemotherapy, bone marrow transplantation, maintenance treatments, supportive measures, and targeted therapies.

Of particular concern, “most patients may suffer from postponed chemotherapy, due to a shortage of isolation beds and blood products or the wish to avoid immunosuppressive treatments,” the authors noted, warning that “delay in chemotherapy initiation may negatively affect prognosis, [particularly in patients under age 60] with favorable- or intermediate-risk disease.”

With regard to stem cell transplantation, the authors detail the many potential difficulties with regard to procedures involving both donors and recipients, and warn that in some cases, delay in transplant could result in the reappearance of a significant minimal residual disease, which has a well-established negative impact on survival.

The authors also noted that blood product shortages have already begun in most affected countries, and how, in response, transfusion societies have called for conservative transfusion policies in strict adherence to evidence-based guidelines for patient’s blood management.

“COVID-19 will result in numerous casualties. Acute leukemia patients are at a higher risk of severe complications,” the authors stated. In particular, physicians should especially be aware of how treatment for acute leukemia may have “interactions with other drugs used to treat SARS-CoV-2–related infections/complications such as antibiotics, antiviral drugs, and various other drugs that prolong QTc or impact targeted-therapy pharmacokinetics,” they concluded.

The authors reported that they received no government or private funding for this research, and that they had no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Gavillet M et al. Leuk. Res. 2020. doi.org/10.1016/j.leukres.2020.106353.