Biologics May Protect Patients With Psoriasis Against Severe COVID-19

Bruce Jancin

November 03, 2020

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

Biologic therapy for psoriasis may protect against severe COVID-19, according to two large observational studies from Italy and France presented at the virtual annual congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.

"Biologics seem to be very protective against severe, poor-prognosis COVID-19, but they do not prevent infection with the virus," reported Giovanni Damiani, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Milan.

This apparent protective effect of biologic agents against severe and even fatal COVID-19 is all the more impressive because the psoriasis patients included in the Italian study — as is true of those elsewhere throughout the world — had relatively high rates of obesity, smoking, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known risk factors for severe COVID-19, he added.

He presented a case-control study including 1,193 adult psoriasis patients on biologics or apremilast (Otezla) at Milan's San Donato Hospital during the period from Feb. 21 to April 9, 2020. The control group comprised more than 10 million individuals, the entire adult population of the Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital. This was the hardest-hit area in all of Italy during the first wave of COVID-19.

Twenty-two of the 1,193 psoriasis patients experienced confirmed COVID-19 during the study period. Seventeen were quarantined at home because their disease was mild. Five were hospitalized. But no psoriasis patients were placed in intensive care, and none died.

Psoriasis patients on biologics were significantly more likely than the general Lombardian population to test positive for COVID-19, with an unadjusted odds ratio of 3.43. They were at 9.05-fold increased risk of home quarantine for mild disease, and at 3.59-fold greater risk than controls for hospitalization for COVID-19. However, they were not at significantly increased risk of ICU admission. And while they actually had a 59% relative risk reduction for death, this didn't achieve statistical significance.

Forty-five percent of the psoriasis patients were on an interleukin-17 (IL-17) inhibitor, 22% were on a tumor necrosis factor–alpha inhibitor, and 20% were taking an IL-12/23 inhibitor. Of note, none of 77 patients on apremilast developed COVID-19, even though it is widely considered a less potent psoriasis therapy than the injectable monoclonal antibody biologics.

The French Experience

Anne-Claire Fougerousse, MD, and her French coinvestigators conducted a study designed to address a different question: Is it safe to start psoriasis patients on biologics or older conventional systemic agents such as methotrexate during the pandemic?

She presented a French national cross-sectional study of 1,418 adult psoriasis patients on a biologic or standard systemic therapy during a snapshot in time near the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in France: the period from April 27 to May 7, 2020. The group included 1,188 psoriasis patients on maintenance therapy and 230 who had initiated systemic treatment within the past 4 months. More than one-third of the patients had at least one risk factor for severe COVID-19.

Although testing wasn't available to confirm all cases, 54 patients developed probable COVID-19 during the study period. Only five required hospitalization. None died. The two hospitalized psoriasis patients admitted to an ICU had obesity as a risk factor for severe COVID-19, as did another of the five hospitalized patients, reported Fougerousse, a dermatologist at the Bégin Military Teaching Hospital in Saint-Mandé, France. Hospitalization for COVID-19 was required in 0.43% of the French treatment initiators, not significantly different from the 0.34% rate in patients on maintenance systemic therapy. A study limitation was the lack of a control group.

Nonetheless, the data did answer the investigators' main question: "This is the first data showing no increased incidence of severe COVID-19 in psoriasis patients receiving systemic therapy in the treatment initiation period compared to those on maintenance therapy. This may now allow physicians to initiate conventional systemic or biologic therapy in patients with severe psoriasis on a case-by-case basis in the context of the persistent COVID-19 pandemic," Fougerousse concluded.

Proposed Mechanism of Benefit

The Italian study findings that biologics boost the risk of infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in psoriasis patients while potentially protecting them against ICU admission and death are backed by a biologically plausible albeit as yet unproven mechanism of action, Damiani asserted.

He elaborated: A vast body of high-quality clinical trials data demonstrates that these targeted immunosuppressive agents are associated with modestly increased risk of viral infections, including both skin and respiratory tract infections. So there is no reason to suppose these agents would offer protection against the first phase of COVID-19, involving SARS-CoV-2 infection, nor protect against the second (pulmonary phase), whose hallmarks are dyspnea with or without hypoxia. But progression to the third phase, involving hyperinflammation and hypercoagulation — dubbed the cytokine storm — could be a different matter.

"Of particular interest was that our patients on IL-17 inhibitors displayed a really great outcome. Interleukin-17 has procoagulant and prothrombotic effects, organizes bronchoalveolar remodeling, has a profibrotic effect, induces mitochondrial dysfunction, and encourages dendritic cell migration in peribronchial lymph nodes. Therefore, by antagonizing this interleukin, we may have a better prognosis, although further studies are needed to be certain," Damiani commented.

Publication of his preliminary findings drew the attention of a group of highly respected thought leaders in psoriasis, including James G. Krueger, MD, head of the laboratory for investigative dermatology and codirector of the center for clinical and investigative science at Rockefeller University, New York.

The Italian report prompted them to analyze data from the phase 4, double-blind, randomized ObePso-S study investigating the effects of the IL-17 inhibitor secukinumab (Cosentyx) on systemic inflammatory markers and gene expression in psoriasis patients. The investigators demonstrated that IL-17–mediated inflammation in psoriasis patients was associated with increased expression of the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor in lesional skin, and that treatment with secukinumab dropped ACE2 expression to levels seen in nonlesional skin.

Given that ACE2 is the chief portal of entry for SARS-CoV-2 and that IL-17 exerts systemic proinflammatory effects, it's plausible that inhibition of IL-17–mediated inflammation via dampening of ACE2 expression in noncutaneous epithelia "could prove to be advantageous in patients with psoriasis who are at risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection," according to Krueger and his coinvestigators in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Damiani and Fougerousse reported having no financial conflicts regarding their studies. The secukinumab/ACE2 receptor study was funded by Novartis.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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