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People with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) who contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus appear more likely to die from COVID-19 if their rheumatologic condition is not being well controlled at the time of their infection.
New data from the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance (GRA) physician registry reported in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases have found that the odds of dying from COVID-19 were 87% higher in individuals recorded as having moderate to high disease activity versus those reported to be in remission or having low disease activity.
“I think this really highlights the importance of continuing to appropriately, and actively, treat our patients, and the importance of controlling their disease,” Pedro Machado, MD, PhD, said in an interview. Machado, an associate professor in rheumatology and muscle diseases at University College London and a consultant rheumatologist at several U.K. hospitals, has been involved in the GRA physician registry from the start, and sits on the GRA steering committee.
Alongside higher disease activity, several other important factors were found to be associated with increased odds of dying from COVID-19 – older age, male gender, and the presence of one or more comorbidities, such as hypertension combined with cardiovascular disease or chronic lung disease.
These demographic and disease-based factors have been linked to an increased risk for COVID-19–related hospitalization before, both in people with RMDs and in the general population, but the latest GRA physician registry data now take that a step further, and link them also to an increased risk for death, together with several other factors more specific to RMDs.
Logging COVID-19 Rheumatologic Cases
Since the start of the global pandemic, the potential effects that SARS-CoV-2 infection might have on people with RMDs in particular has concerned the rheumatology community. The main worries being that, either because of the underlying RMD itself or to its treatment, there may be immunoregulatory deficits or other risk factors that would make individuals more susceptible to not only infection but also to developing more severe COVID-19 than the general population.
These concerns led to the rapid formation of the GRA and the COVID-19 GRA physician registry in March 2020 to collect and analyze data on adults with rheumatic disease and confirmed or presumptive COVID-19. Entries into the registry are made by or under the direction of rheumatologists, and this is a voluntary process.
“This population cannot ever be entirely representative of the population of patients with rheumatic diseases,” Machado acknowledged. There will be selection and other biases that affect the reported data. That said, it’s the largest database of reported COVID-19 cases in adult rheumatology patients across the world, with more than 9,000 cases so far included from multiple registries, including those based in Europe and North and South America. Data from one of these – the French RMD cohort – have also recently been published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, showing much the same findings but on a national level.
Hospitalization was the focus of a previous report because “you need large sample sizes” to look at endpoints that occur less frequently. When the first analysis was done, there were around 600 cases from 40 countries in the registry with sufficient data that could be used. Now, with a greater number of recorded cases, factors influencing the risk for death could be examined.
Death Rate and Risk Factors Found
Data on 3,729 COVID-19 cases in people with RMDs were included in the current analysis, all recorded in the first few months of the registry being open and up until July 1, 2020. In all, 390 (10.5%) of people died. While this is “clearly higher” than reported in the general population in most countries, the analysis was not designed to calculate a precise estimate.
“It should not be taken as an estimate of the overall death rate among patients with rheumatic diseases and COVID-19,” Machado and coauthors have been keen to point out.
“Age is always the biggest risk factor,” Machado explained. “There’s always a gradient: the older the patient, the worse the outcome.”
Indeed, there was a threefold increased risk for death among those aged 66-75 years versus those who were 65 years or younger (odds ratio, 3.00), and a sixfold increased risk for patients older than 75, compared with the younger age group (OR, 6.18).
Having both hypertension and cardiovascular disease was associated with an OR of 1.89, and coexisting chronic lung disease also significantly increased the chances of dying from COVID-19 (OR, 1.68).
Being of male sex was associated with a 46% increased risk for death from COVID-19 versus being of female sex.
The risk for COVID-19 death also rose with the use of corticosteroids. Compared with no steroid use, there was a 69% increased risk for with death at doses of 10 mg or more prednisolone equivalent per day.
“The finding about moderate to high doses of steroids being associated with a worse outcome is consistent with the first report; it was the same for hospitalization,” Machado observed.
The general consensus on steroid use in the COVID-19 setting is that they should be continued as needed, but at the lowest possible dose, as outlined in provisional recommendations set out by the recently renamed European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology.
The GRA physician registry findings provide further support for this, suggesting that disease control should be optimized with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, ideally without increasing the dose of steroids.
Surprise Over Sulfasalazine Risk
“Taking all medications into account – such as methotrexate, leflunomide, hydroxychloroquine, [tumor necrosis factor] blockers, interleukin-6 blockers, and [Janus kinase] inhibitors – it is quite reassuring because we did not see an association with worse outcome with those drugs overall,” Machado said.
However, treatment with rituximab (OR, 4.0), sulfasalazine (OR, 3.6), and immunosuppressive agents such as azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, cyclosporine, mycophenolate, or tacrolimus (OR, 2.2), were associated with higher odds of dying from COVID-19 when compared with treatment with methotrexate alone.
The findings for rituximab and immunosuppressant use were perhaps not unexpected, but the possible association between sulfasalazine and COVID-19 death was “a bit intriguing,” Machado observed. “Sulfasalazine is believed to have low immunosuppressive effect.”
This warrants further investigation, but there are likely a range of confounding factors at play. One could be that people considered to be at higher risk may have been more often prescribed sulfasalazine because it was thought to be less immunosuppressive. Another might be because people taking sulfasalazine were more likely to be smokers, and they were also not advised to protect themselves from exposure to the virus (shielding) during the first wave of the pandemic, at least not in the United Kingdom.
Rituximab Caution and Vaccination
“Rituximab is a concern,” Machado acknowledged. “It is a concern that rheumatologists are now aware of and they are addressing, but then it’s a concern for a very specific subgroup of patients.”
While rheumatologists are, and will continue to prescribe it, there will be even more careful consideration over when, in whom, and how to use it during, and possibly even after, the pandemic.
“COVID is here to stay, it will become endemic, and it’s going to be part of our lives like the flu virus is,” Machado predicted.
Then there is the issue on vaccinating people against COVID-19, should those on rituximab still receive it? The answer is a yes, but, as with other vaccinations it’s all about the timing of when the vaccination is given.
Societies such as the British Society for Rheumatology have already begun to include guidance on this, recommending one of the available COVID-19 vaccines is given at least a month before the next or first dose of rituximab is due. As rituximab is given every few months, with doses sometimes spaced as much as 9 months or even a year apart, this should not be too much of a problem, but it is “better to have the vaccine first,” Machado said.
Has COVID-19 Care Improved in RMDs?
In separate research published in The Lancet Rheumatology, April Jorge, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, and associates found that the risks of severe COVID-19 outcomes have improved over time, although they still “remain substantial.”
Jorge and colleagues looked at temporal trends in COVID-19 outcomes in patients with RMDs over the course of the first 6 months of the pandemic in 2020, using data from a large, multicenter, electronic health record network (TriNetX).
They formed two patient cohorts – a late (diagnosed from April 20 to July 20) and an early (diagnosed from January 20 to April 20) cohort – to see if outcomes had improved and discovered lower relative risks among patients in the late cohort for hospitalization (0.67), admission to the ICU (0.56), mechanical ventilation (0.39), acute kidney injury (0.66), renal replacement (0.53), and death (0.39).
“These results are encouraging,” but it’s difficult to match these different populations of patients, Machado said. “There are always factors that you cannot match for” and were not included in the U.S. analysis.
While there are important caveats in how the analysis was performed and thus in interpreting these data, they do “suggest that one of the reasons why outcomes have improved is because we have become better at treating these patients,” Machado added.
“Our treatment has improved, and our capacity to treat the complications has improved. We understand better how the disease behaves – we know that they can have thromboembolic complications that we can manage, and we are now able to manage ventilation issues better.”
Moreover, Machado said that, not only were clinicians more aware of what they should or should not do, there were treatments that were being used routinely or in some cases based on recent clinical trial results. “I think we are indeed treating these patients better.”
The COVID-19 GRA physician registry is financially supported by the American College of Rheumatology and EULAR. Machado had no relevant conflicts of interest.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.