From the Journals

Better COVID-19 outcomes confirmed in TNF inhibitor users


Among patients with immune-mediated inflammatory diseases (IMIDs) who get COVID-19, the risk for hospitalization and death is lower if they are receiving tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitor monotherapy, compared with receiving most other common drugs for these conditions, with or without TNF inhibitors, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open The only combination not associated with an increased risk for hospitalization or death was TNF inhibitor therapy with methotrexate.

“These findings support the continued use of TNF inhibitor monotherapy during the pandemic and warrant further research investigating the association of other biologic therapies with COVID-19 outcomes,” write Zara Izadi, MPharm, of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues. “Treatment with TNF inhibitor combination therapy was associated with a more favorable safety profile when methotrexate rather than azathioprine/6-mercaptopurine was used, suggesting that clinicians would benefit from weighing the risks versus benefits of deescalating treatment or changing medications when a patient is receiving concomitant TNF inhibitors and azathioprine/6-mercaptopurine,” they write.

Findings mirror those seen in other settings

These findings are in line with what has been found in other settings, according to Joel M. Gelfand, MD, director of the psoriasis and phototherapy treatment center, vice chair of clinical research, and medical director of the dermatology clinical studies unit at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Joel M. Gelfand, MD,  a professor, and director of the Psoriasis and Phototherapy Treatment Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Dr. Joel M. Gelfand

“In the beginning of the pandemic, there was concern about use of immune-modulating treatments, and many patients self-discontinued treatments like TNF inhibitors,” Dr. Gelfand, who was not involved in the study, told this news organization. “This has ultimately proved unnecessary and unfortunately resulted in harm to many patients due to flaring of their underlying disease.”

Dr. Gelfand emphasized the importance of vaccinating patients against COVID-19 as soon as possible and of getting a third dose for those who are already fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna shots, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I typically recommend this third dose be taken 6 months after the second dose,” Dr. Gelfand said. “The good news is that TNF inhibitors do not seem to meaningfully impact response to mRNA vaccines.”

Study details

The researchers analyzed data from three international registries of adults with rheumatic diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis who had COVID-19 between March 12, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021. The registries included the Secure Epidemiology of Coronavirus Under Research Exclusion for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (SECURE-IBD) registry, the Psoriasis Patient Registry for Outcomes, Therapy and Epidemiology of COVID-19 Infection (PsoProtect), and the physician-reported registry from the Global Rheumatology Alliance (GRA).

The population included 6,077 patients from 74 countries. About half of the cohort (52.9%) were from Europe; more than half were women (58.6%). The average age was 48 years. A little over one-third of the patients (35.3%) had rheumatoid arthritis, 25.3% had Crohn’s disease, 12.5% had ulcerative colitis, 10.3% had spondyloarthritis, and 9.3% had psoriatic arthritis. Smaller percentages had psoriasis (4.9%), another type of arthritis or multiple types (1.7%), or another inflammatory bowel disease (0.6%).

One in five patients (21.3%) were hospitalized, and 3.1% died. The researchers compared outcomes for those who were receiving TNF inhibitor therapy alone to outcomes for those who were taking azathioprine/6-mercaptopurine therapy (alone or with a TNF inhibitor), methotrexate (alone or with a TNF inhibitor), and Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors. They adjusted their analysis to account for active disease and common comorbidities, as well as geography and the period during the pandemic in which the person was admitted, because treatment regimens and hospitalization indications have varied over time.

All of the therapies except the combination of TNF inhibitors and methotrexate were associated with higher odds of hospitalization and death than TNF inhibitor monotherapy.

The researchers explored several possible explanations for the findings, including the possibility that high serum TNF concentrations may have been associated with more organ damage at the time of COVID-19 admission, owing to interaction with SARS-CoV-2–associated hyperinflammation.

“Therefore, blocking TNF could inhibit this detrimental immune response,” the authors write. “Multiple case series reporting favorable outcomes among patients receiving TNF inhibitor therapy support this assertion.”

Another possibility relates to the effects of taking non–TNF inhibitor medications for immunosuppression. The authors note that thiopurine medications are linked to a greater risk for opportunistic viral infections and that JAK inhibitors may reduce the body’s ability to clear the virus because of its suppression of innate immune response.

The authors also postulate that methotrexate may lower the likelihood of cytokine storm linked to COVID-19, even though methotrexate monotherapy was associated with poorer outcomes. “This association could mean that TNF inhibitor therapy is exerting a protective benefit or that methotrexate therapy is exerting a harmful consequence,” the authors write.


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