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Osteoporosis drugs don’t worsen COVID-19 risk, may help


New observational data are the first to support recommendations to continue osteoporosis medications during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even suggest that some agents may protect against the virus.

Findings from the cross-sectional study of 2,102 patients with osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and/or fibromyalgia – so-called noninflammatory rheumatic conditions – during March 1 to May 3, 2020, were recently published in Aging by Josep Blanch-Rubió, MD, scientific clinical director of the Rheumatology Service, Hospital del Mar, Barcelona, and colleagues.

Patients taking denosumab, zoledronate, and calcium showed trends toward lower incidence of developing symptomatic presumed COVID-19 (polymerase chain reaction tests weren’t widely available at the time), as did those taking the antidepressant serotonin/norepinephrine inhibitor duloxetine.

Some analgesics, particularly pregabalin and most other antidepressants, were associated with higher incidences of COVID-19, while oral bisphosphonates, vitamin D, thiazide diuretics, antihypertensive drugs, and chronic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs had no effect on COVID-19 incidence.

These data are the first to support guidance issued in May 2020 by the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research and four other professional societies advising continuation of osteoporosis medications during the pandemic. That statement’s authors acknowledged that, lacking data, their recommendations were based primarily on expert opinion.

“There were guidelines without any scientific base. ... This is the first scientific evidence showing that indeed you should continue your osteoporosis treatment if you have COVID-19. This is the first study to provide scientific support for the guidelines,” study coauthor Rafael Maldonado, MD, PhD, of the Laboratory of Neuropharmacology, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, said in an interview.

And while the data don’t offer proof of benefit for any drug – all of the 95% confidence intervals crossed 1.0 – they do show trends that deserve further study, Dr. Maldonado said.

“What we observed is that there is no harm. Treatments should be continued.”

“But we obtained very interesting results with denosumab, zoledronate, calcium, and duloxetine. ... There is a clear tendency, and the message is we should promote studies to see if these four treatments provide benefit.”

Different mechanisms for each?

Asked to comment on the findings, Matthew T. Drake, MD, PhD, said in an interview, “I would agree that there’s no reason any of these medications should be stopped or discontinued since there’s no evidence that they make the risk for infection worse.”

“But how [some of them may] improve or reduce the infection risk in my mind is somewhat unclear. ... It’s hard to come up with a unifying explanation” because those mentioned as potentially beneficial “are fairly different,” he noted.

Dr. Drake, associate professor of medicine in the department of endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., said he agreed with the study authors that denosumab’s targeting of the RANK/RANKL system is a possible anti-COVID-19 mechanism for that drug because that system is involved in immune response.

Regarding zoledronate/zoledronic acid, both the Spanish authors and Dr. Drake pointed to a landmark study linking the intravenous drug to longer survival in patients with hip fracture. The study authors note that there could be several mechanisms for an overall survival benefit, but additionally, “zoledronate may make dendritic cells and their precursors less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, which could explain the beneficial effects here ... on COVID-19 incidence.”

And, the authors hypothesized, the reason for the lack of benefit with oral bisphosphonates might relate to the higher potency of the intravenous zoledronate. Dr. Drake added that its higher bioavailability may also play a role.

As for calcium, the authors suggest that the beneficial effect against COVID-19 could relate to its action in generating two immune cell types – T follicular helper cells and T follicular regulatory cells – which promote an appropriate immune response against infectious agents, including viruses.


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