Oncology conferences under threat from COVID-19

Risk Factors

By Mardi Chapman

4 Mar 2020

It might be a case of watchful waiting for Aussie oncologists considering attending the major international medical conferences this year.

Whether or not COVID-19 will disrupt the usual networking, knowledge-sharing and general bonhomie at huge events such as ASCO remains to be seen but already some major conferences have been abandoned.

The American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) meeting scheduled for April 24-29 in San Diego, that attracts more than 20,000 attendees, has been cancelled.

“AACR Board of Directors has made the difficult decision, after careful consideration and comprehensive evaluation of currently available information related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, to terminate the AACR Annual Meeting .. a rescheduled meeting is being planned for later this year,” a statement said.

Europe cancels

Australian oncologist Professor John Zalcberg, a frequent flyer to international conferences, told the limbic he was on the organising committee and due to chair a session at the 5th St. Gallen International Gastrointestinal Cancer Conference later this month.

He said it was almost a relief when the meeting was cancelled and the decision was made for him.

Although Switzerland only had a few COVID-19 cases, large-scale events involving more than 1,000 people were banned under their Epidemics Act.

“Everyone is going to be anxious about this. I think the reality is that there are many more cases than SARS, there is a relatively low but still tragic mortality rate and people are getting quite ill.”

“So the way I look at it is I will view each conference – if I am booked or registered I won’t cancel I’ll just wait until it gets closer and if the situation is looking dire or there are warnings, or the conference itself is cancelled, I obviously won’t go.”

“People have to look after themselves and their families and their colleagues, and their patients from a clinical point of view, but I suspect it will become clearer in a little while.”

ESMO’s Targeted Anticancer Therapies (TAT) 2020 meeting, due to be held in Paris this week, was also cancelled.

In a statement on its website, ESMO said the difficult call was made in recognition of the spread of the virus across Europe and increasingly in France.

“In due consideration of the exceptional circumstances and increasing concerns about the prevalence of the virus on an international scale, we feel it is our collective responsibility to minimise the risk of exportation or importation of the disease,” ESMO said.

“We feel responsible towards individuals, with direct or indirect concerns, and our decision not to hold the event will help reduce the potential risks everyone would be exposed to by travelling to, and attending, the meeting.”

Paid registration fees will be fully reimbursed.

Meanwhile in the US,  ASCO (Chicago, from late May) is still accepting registrations and monitoring the situation.

In a statement on their website ASCO, which hosts the largest oncology meeting in the world and is expecting 7,150 exhibitors and 34,200 attendees, said it would be:

  • Following guidance and recommended safety measures of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Working with the City of Chicago, McCormick Place Convention Center, airport authority, and area hotels to coordinate appropriate safety procedures.
  • Adhering to CDC recommendations and protocols for heightened levels of cleanliness at the Convention Center, including adding hand sanitizer stations.
  • Providing resources to address immediate health concerns.
  • Working with exhibitors and registered attendees to evaluate options for those unable to attend due to travel restrictions.

Professor Zalcberg, head of cancer research at Monash University,  said there was certainly an impression that the US has under-tested so far and there may well be more cases of COVID-19 now.

“We still don’t know what is going to happen… but the US will take quarantine precautions just like every other country has and one of those will be big meetings where there is enormous opportunity for spread.”

“I think people are going to err on the side of safety which is what the Australian government has been doing as well.”

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