Corticosteroids Don't Reduce Mortality in COVID-19 Patients With COPD, Asthma

Will Pass

October 12, 2020

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Inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) do not protect patients with chronic respiratory conditions against COVID-19-related death, a study of almost 1 million individuals in the United Kingdom has shown.

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma who used ICS on a regular basis were more likely to die from COVID-19 than COPD or asthma patients who were prescribed non-ICS therapies, reported co-lead author Anna Schultze, PhD, of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and colleagues.

Of note, the increased risk of death among ICS users likely stemmed from greater severity of preexisting chronic respiratory conditions, instead of directly from ICS usage, which has little apparent impact on COVID-19 mortality, the investigators wrote in Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

These findings conflict with a hypothesis proposed early in the pandemic: that ICS may protect individuals from SARS-CoV-2 infection and poor outcomes with COVID-19.

According to Megan Conroy, MD, of the department of internal medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, this hypothesis was based on some unexpected epidemiological findings.

"In general, we tend to think people with underlying lung disease — like COPD or asthma — to be at higher risk for severe forms of lower respiratory tract infections," Conroy said. "Somewhat surprisingly, early data in the pandemic showed patients with COPD and asthma [were] underrepresented [among patients with COVID] when compared to the prevalence of these diseases in the population."

Dr Megan Conroy

This raised the possibility of an incidental protective effect from regular ICS therapy, which "had some strong theoretic pathophysiologic basis," Conroy said, referring to research that demonstrated ICS-mediated downregulation of SARS-CoV-2 entry receptors ACE2 and TMPRSS2.

Schultze and colleagues noted that investigators for two ongoing randomized controlled trials (NCT04331054NCT04330586) are studying ICS as an intervention for COVID-19; but neither trial includes individuals already taking ICS for chronic respiratory disease.

The present observational study therefore aimed to assess mortality risk within this population. Data were drawn from electronic health records and a U.K. national mortality database, with follow-up ranging from March 1 to May 6, 2020. Eligibility required a relevant prescription within 4 months of first follow-up. In the COPD group, patients were prescribed a long-acting beta agonist plus a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LABA–LAMA), LABA alone, LABA plus ICS, LABA–LAMA plus ICS, or ICS alone (if prescribed LABA within 4 months).

In the asthma group, patients received low/medium-dose ICS, high-dose ICS, or a short-acting beta agonist (SABA) alone. Patients with COPD were at least 35 years of age, while those with asthma were 18 years or older. Hazard ratios were adjusted for a variety of covariates, including respiratory disease–exacerbation history, age, sex, body mass index, hypertension, diabetes, and others.

These eligibility criteria returned 148,557 patients with COPD and 818,490 with asthma.

Patients with COPD who were prescribed ICS plus LABA-LAMA or ICS plus LABA had an increased risk of COVID-19-related death, compared with those who did not receive ICS (adjusted hazard ratio, 1.39; 95% confidence interval, 1.10-1.76).

Separate analyses of patients who received a triple combination (LABA–LAMA plus ICS) versus those who took a dual combination (LABA plus ICS) showed that triple-combination therapy was significantly associated with increased COVID-19-related mortality (aHR, 1.43; 95% CI, 1.12-1.83), while dual-combination therapy was less so (aHR, 1.29; 95% CI, 0.96-1.74). Non–COVID-19–related mortality was significantly increased for all COPD patients who were prescribed ICS, with or without adjustment for covariates.

Asthma patients prescribed high-dose ICS instead of SABA alone had a slightly greater risk of COVID-19–related death, based on an adjusted hazard ratio of 1.55 (95% CI, 1.10-2.18). Those with asthma who received low/medium–dose ICS demonstrated a slight trend toward increased mortality risk, but this was not significant (aHR, 1.14; 95% CI, 0.85-1.54). ICS usage in the asthma group was not linked with a significant increase in non–COVID-19–related death.

"In summary, we found no evidence of a beneficial effect of regular ICS use among people with COPD and asthma on COVID-19–related mortality," the investigators concluded.

In agreement with the investigators, Conroy said that the increased mortality rate among ICS users should not be misconstrued as a medication-related risk.

"While the study found that those with COPD or asthma taking ICS and high-dose ICS were at an increased risk of death, this could easily be explained by the likelihood that those are the patients who are more likely to have more severe underlying lung disease," Conroy said. "While this observational study did attempt to control for exacerbation history, the ability to do so by electronic health records data is certainly imperfect."

With this in mind, patients with chronic respiratory disease should be encouraged to adhere to their usual treatment regimen, Conroy added.

"There isn't evidence to increase or decrease medications just because of the pandemic," she said. "A patient with asthma or COPD should continue to take the medications that are needed to achieve good control of their lung disease."

The study was funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council. The investigators reported additional relationships with the Wellcome Trust, the Good Thinking Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and others. Conroy reported no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Schultze A et al. Lancet Respir Med. 2020 Sep 24. doi: 10.1016/ S2213-2600(20)30415-X.

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