Most Rheumatology Drugs Don't Increase COVID-19 Hospitalization Risk

Maureen Salamon

June 04, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The vast majority of patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases who contract COVID-19 recover from the virus, regardless of which medication they receive for their rheumatic condition, new international research suggests.

"These results provide, for the first time, information about the outcome of COVID-19 in patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases," said study investigator Pedro Machado, MD, PhD, from University College London. "They should provide some reassurance to patients and healthcare providers."

Machado and his colleagues looked at 600 COVID patients from 40 countries, and found that those taking TNF inhibitors for their rheumatic disease were less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. However, treatment with more than 10 mg of prednisone daily — considered a moderate to high dose — was associated with a higher probability of hospitalization.

In addition, hospitalization was not associated with biologics; JAK inhibitors; conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate; antimalarials, such as hydroxychloroquine; or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — either alone or in combination with other biologics, such as TNF-alpha inhibitors.

The findings were presented at the virtual European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) 2020 Congress and were published online in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.

"Initially, there was a huge concern that these drugs could affect the outcome of patients getting COVID-19, but what this is showing is that probably these drugs do not increase their risk of severe outcome," Machado, who is chair of the EULAR standing committee on epidemiology and health services research, told Medscape Medical News.

As of June 1, 1061 patients from 28 participating countries had been entered into the EULAR COVID-19 database, which was launched as part of the international Global Rheumatology Alliance registry. Patient data are categorized by factors such as top rheumatology diagnosis, comorbidities, top-five COVID-19 symptoms, and DMARD therapy at the time of virus infection. Anonymized data will be shared with an international register based in the United States.

Machado's team combined data from the EULAR and Global Rheumatology Alliance COVID-19 registries from March 24 to April 20. They looked at patient factors — such as age, sex, smoking status, rheumatic diagnosis, comorbidities, and rheumatic therapies — to examine the association of rheumatic therapies with hospitalization rates and COVID-19 disease course.

Of the 277 patients (46%) in the study cohort who required hospitalization, 55 (9%) died. But this finding shouldn't be viewed as the true rate of hospitalization or death in patients with rheumatic disease and COVID-19, said Gerd Burmester, MD, from Charité–University Medicine Berlin.

"There's tremendous bias in terms of more serious cases of COVID-19 being reported to the registries," he explained, "because the mild cases won't even show up at their rheumatologist's office."

"This can skew the idea that COVID-19 is much more dangerous to rheumatic patients than to the regular population," Burmester told Medscape Medical News. "It scares the patients, obviously, but we believe this is not justified."

It's still unclear whether rituximab use raises the risk for severe COVID-19, he said. "It appears to be the only biologic for which the jury is still out," he said.

"Anti-TNFs and anti-IL-6 drugs may even be beneficial, although we don't have robust data," he added.

The study can only highlight associations between rheumatic drugs and COVID-19 outcomes. "We cannot say there is a causal relationship between the findings," Machado said.

Longer-term data, when available, should illuminate "more granular" aspects of COVID-19 outcomes in rheumatic patients, including their risks of requiring ventilation or developing a cytokine storm, he noted.

Burmester and Machado agree that research needs to continue as the pandemic rages on. But so far, "there are no data suggesting that if you're on a targeted, dedicated immunomodulator, your risk is higher to have a worse course of COVID-19 than the general population," Burmester said.

"We simply didn't know that when the pandemic started, and some patients even discontinued their drugs out of this fear," he added. "It's more reassuring than we originally thought."

European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) 2020 Congress: Presented June 3, 2020.

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