Cancer patients were more likely to die from the BA.1 and BA.2 omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2 than from wild-type SARS-CoV-2, according to research published in JAMA Oncology.1,2

The study showed that, among US cancer patients, COVID-19 deaths were more likely during the initial omicron wave when the BA.1 and BA.2 variants were in circulation (December 2021 to February 2022) than when wild-type SARS-CoV-2 was circulating (December 2020 to February 2021).

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 54,692 COVID-19 deaths among patients with cancer and 1,008,510 COVID-19 deaths in the general population from March 1, 2020, through May 31, 2022.

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This study included 34,350 patients with cancer and 628,156 individuals from the general population who died from COVID-19 when wild-type SARS-CoV-2 was in circulation (December 2020-February 2021), the delta variant was in circulation (July 2021-November 2021), or the BA.1 and BA.2 omicron variants were in circulation (December 2021-February 2022).

The highest number of COVID-19-related deaths among patients with cancer occurred during the 2021-2022 omicron wave. At the peak of this wave, in January 2022, there were 18% more deaths than during the peak of the wild-type period, which occurred during January 2021.

This trend was maintained when patients were stratified by age group. The number of deaths per month among patients with cancer younger than 50 years of age was 64% higher during the 2021-2022 omicron wave than during the wild-type wave. The number was 62% higher among patients aged 50 to 59 years, 31% higher for those aged 60 to 69 years, and 16% higher for those aged 70 to 79 years.

When the researchers looked at individual cancer types, they found that COVID-19 deaths were more likely during the 2021-2022 omicron wave for most cancer types. The exceptions were brain cancer (mortality ratio [MR], 0.77; 95% CI, 0.65-0.90), thyroid cancer (MR, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.54-0.99), and bladder cancer (MR, 0.58; 95% CI, 0.52-0.65).

Patients with lymphoma had the greatest increase in deaths from the wild-type wave to the 2021-2022 omicron wave, at 38% (mortality ratio [MR], 1.38; 95% CI, 1.31-1.45).

In the general population, the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per month occurred when wild-type SARS-CoV-2 was prevalent. At the peak of the initial omicron wave in January 2022, there were 21% fewer deaths in the general US population than at the peak of the wild-type period in January 2021 (MR, 0.69; 95% CI, 0.69-0.70).

“[W]hile the general US population experienced a large reduction in COVID-19 mortality during the winter Omicron period, patients with cancer experienced the highest COVID-19 mortality during the winter Omicron period, likely due to increased SARS-CoV-2 exposure during this period combined with the reduced effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and increased risk of COVID-19 mortality in this population,” the researchers wrote. “With future COVID-19 waves imminent, strategies to protect those at highest risk should remain a high priority, even during future pandemic waves with less virulent SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

Disclosures: One of the study authors declared affiliations with biotech, pharmaceutical, and/or device companies. Please see the original reference for a full list of disclosures.


1. Potter AL, Vaddaraju V, Venkateswaran S, et al. Deaths due to COVID-19 in patients with cancer during different waves of the pandemic in the US. JAMA Oncol. Published online August 31, 2023. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2023.3066

2. SARS-CoV-2 sequences by variant, United States, Jan 3, 2022. Our World in Data. Updated August 22, 2023. Accessed September 1, 2023.