COVID-19 Vaccination in RMD Patients: Safety Data 'Reassuring'

Heidi Splete

March 30, 2021

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Two reports support the safety and immunogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines in patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) and represent the first available data on such patients.

In an observational cohort study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, Caoilfhionn M. Connolly, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and colleagues reviewed data from 325 adults with RMDs who received the first dose of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine during the period of Dec. 17, 2020, to Feb. 11, 2021. Of these, 51% received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and 49% received the Moderna vaccine.

The patients, who were invited to participate on social media, were aged 34-54 years, 96% were women, and 89% were White. Inflammatory arthritis was the most common RMD condition (38%), followed by systemic lupus erythematosus (28%) and overlap connective tissue disease (19%). The patients were using a range of immunomodulatory treatment regimens, including nonbiologic disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) in 44%, biologics in 19%, and combination therapy in 37%.

Overall, 89% of patients reported localized symptoms of pain, swelling, and erythema, and 69% reported systemic symptoms. Fatigue was the most common systemic symptom, and 7.4% reported severe fatigue.

None of the patients experienced allergic reactions requiring epinephrine, and 3% reported new infections that required treatment.

"These early, reassuring results may ameliorate concern among patients and provide guidance for rheumatology providers in critical discussions regarding vaccine hesitancy or refusal," they concluded.

Antibody Responses

In another study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases by the same group of researchers, antibody responses against the receptor binding domain of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein were seen in 74% of 123 adults with an RMD at 18-26 days after receiving a first dose of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine (52% Pfizer vaccine and 48% Moderna) between Jan. 8, 2021, and Feb. 12, 2021.

The most common diagnoses in these patients were inflammatory arthritis (28%), systemic lupus erythematosus (20%), and Sjögren's syndrome (13%). A total of 28% of participants reported taking no immunomodulatory agents, 19% reported nonbiologic DMARDs, 14% reported biologic DMARDs, and 19% reported combination therapy.

Although no differences appeared based on disease groups or overall categories of immunomodulatory therapies, patients whose treatment included mycophenolate or rituximab were significantly less likely to develop antibody responses than were patients not taking these medications (P = .001 and P = .04, respectively).

Although rituximab and methotrexate have been associated with reduced responses to vaccines such as the flu vaccine, methotrexate was not associated with reduced vaccine response in this study. A total of 94% of patients taking a tumor necrosis factor inhibitor had detectable antibodies.

The studies' findings were limited by several factors including a lack of longer-term safety data; the small, nonrandomized sample of mainly white women; limited information on immunomodulatory drug dosage and timing; lack of serial antibody measurements; use of an enzyme immunoassay designed to detect antibody response after natural infection; and the inclusion of data only on the first dose of a two-dose vaccine series, the researchers noted. However, the data should provide additional reassurance to RMD patients and their health care teams about vaccination against COVID-19, they said.

Both studies were supported by the Ben-Dov family. In addition, the studies were supported by grants to various study authors from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and the Transplantation and Immunology Research Network of the American Society of Transplantation. One author disclosed financial relationships with Sanofi, Novartis, CSL Behring, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Veloxis, Mallinckrodt, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The other researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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