Don’t Let the Search for a COVID-19 Vaccine Hinder Solutions for Other Diseases

Nearly 10,000 more people will die from breast and colorectal cancer over the next decade because of the disruption to health care caused by COVID-19. That estimate comes from Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, who direly warns that a large number of excess deaths from cancer will occur unless patients feel they can return to cancer centers safely for testing and treatment.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of medical testing has become central to the discussion about how to control the spread of the coronavirus. How much and what kind of testing is necessary to find and stop the spread of the coronavirus?  

But even while that important testing debate continues, there is another testing issue that is causing major concern. Too many Americans, worried about being infected by the coronavirus, are delaying or postponing medically necessary visits to their doctor to get needed tests, surgery and treatment for other serious diseases like cancer, heart disease and more. And, as the National Institutes of Health’s stark warning describes, that delay can be fatal to many patients.

Medical science has now mobilized around the world to find a vaccine or a treatment therapy to stop the deadly coronavirus. And, even while the urgent vaccine search is underway, there is exciting new work being accomplished on testing and treatment for other diseases.

New companies are working to improve diagnostic tests, searching for causes of symptoms that patients are experiencing. And there are new, major breakthroughs in screening tests, which are used to find evidence of disease even before the patient experiences symptoms. 

For example, a new company called Thrive Earlier Detection has achieved impressive results in its work to find DNA and protein bio-markers in a new blood screening technology that can detect cancer before any symptoms appear.  

The first 10,000-person study by Thrive in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and the Geisinger Health System produced breakthrough evidence that it is possible to detect many types of cancer before a patient has symptoms and clinically intervene for better health outcomes.

Cancer is one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases and this is one of those breakthroughs that could, and likely will, save lives and make a major difference in the fight against cancer.Looking for a needle in a haystack” is often used to describe a near impossible task. In the case of the exciting breakthrough at Thrive, their new blood test to detect cancer is “finding” the needle in the haystack. 

There are currently many screening tests using blood to check for diseases before symptoms appear. Cardiovascular screening is one such example. But the ability to use a blood test to screen for and detect many types of cancer at once has never been done and it is a new and exciting potential tool for fighting this dreaded disease.

Medical testing is often invasive, painful or otherwise inconvenient. But the powerful ability to screen for multiple cancers through a standard blood test will offer us many more “shots on goal,” including for those cancers which currently have no screening tests available. 

There’s important and urgent work to be done to fight the pandemic. At the same time, there’s equally important and critical work to be done to fight cancer. The time to act on both fronts is now.


Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, who was a member of the Senate Democratic leadership and a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act and other health care reforms in the U.S. Senate, is now at Arent Fox LLP, and serves as a consultant to Thrive, a company working on breakthrough technology to detect cancer earlier from blood samples. 

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