We Must Implement Covid Relief Because Cancer Doesn’t Wait
Two weeks ago, I was proud to join more than 150 business leaders in signing a letter urging Congress to swiftly adopt a COVID-19 stimulus and relief plan. Today, I am thrilled that the American Rescue Plan has been signed into law by President Joe Biden. This relief package is a significant and necessary step in the fight against COVID that will invigorate the public health response to the crisis and support desperately needed vaccination efforts.
But we cannot stop here. In the weeks and months ahead, we must continue to work together to vaccinate as many Americans as possible, improve health care access and address the wide-ranging consequences of this pandemic, including for cancer patients. As the CEO of Guardant Health, a precision oncology company, I am acutely aware of the negative effects of the pandemic on cancer diagnosis and treatment – and the life-saving potential, beyond the pandemic, of rapid mitigation efforts.
The shutdowns over the past year have delayed critical cancer screenings, including mammograms, colonoscopies and diagnostic lung cancer testing. As a result, oncologists are predicting significant spikes in advanced cancers after the pandemic ends. The sad truth is that countless Americans may be at increasing risk of deadly disease, even as they stay home and take precautionary measures to avoid COVID-19. Expeditious and effective implementation of a national vaccination program, as outlined in the American Rescue Plan, will allow more of these Americans to safely access cancer testing and treatment.
As we exit the pandemic, physicians must also be prepared to move rapidly to diagnose and treat advanced cancers that may have remained undetected during the past year. The lost time over these many months will not allow much — if any — room for error in finding the right first line of treatment for late-stage cancer patients. Fortunately, new technologies – like liquid biopsies – are accelerating effective treatment options for the patients most in need of precise clinical therapies.
Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first comprehensive liquid biopsy, our own Guardant360CDx companion diagnostic, which can be administered through a simple blood draw in the privacy and safety of a patient’s home. These innovative tests allow for comprehensive genomic profiling – or CGP – used by oncologists to examine the genetic makeup of a tumor and potentially select a targeted treatment plan instead of a general treatment like chemotherapy. Critically, Guardant360CDx’s results can be obtained in as few as 7 days.
These new life-saving tools are trusted and faster alternatives to tissue biopsies, which typically require risky surgical procedures and are sometimes skipped to save precious time in treating aggressive cancers. Unfortunately, in the absence of CGP, doctors may not choose the right first line of treatment, and in those cases, only 50 percent of patients will survive for a second line of therapy. In short, in the current and post-pandemic environment, the stakes of achieving accurate, rapid, and safe diagnostic testing at the outset could not be higher for American cancer patients.
The ultimate success of COVID relief and recovery will depend on the strength of our actions still to come. We must all work in partnership – government, industry, the health care community – to accelerate vaccination efforts, identify illnesses that have remained undetected this year and advance health care access for everyone. Here at Guardant Health, we are standing by: ready to assist wherever we can, prepared for the challenges that lie ahead in the fight against cancer and determined to develop and promote new technologies to improve treatment for advanced cancer patients and high-risk populations.
This virus has affected every citizen of our country, just as cancer has sadly impacted far too many American families. We will never be able to replace the lives lost both to this virus and to cancer – but we still have time to prevent more families from experiencing this heartbreaking pain and loss. If we join forces in this common cause over the next several weeks and months, together we will move forward in our efforts to finally conquer cancer and COVID-19.
Helmy Eltoukhy, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of Guardant Health.