Conference Coverage

MS and COVID: Docs switched DMTs but maybe didn’t need to



Most U.S. medical professionals who treat patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) appear to have adjusted drug regimens during the pandemic’s early months to lower the risk of COVID-19 infection. But they actually didn’t need to make changes then – or now. These are the messages of a pair of new studies that examine the impact of the pandemic on the treatment of MS.

One report finds that 80% of specialists surveyed in the summer of 2020 said the pandemic may have changed how they prescribe disease-modifying therapies (DMTs). However, the other report finds no evidence that choice of DMT affects risk of COVID-19 infection. Both studies were presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers (CMSC).

For the survey, researchers led by neurologist Elizabeth H. Morrison-Banks, MD, of the University of California, Riverside, sent questions to 188 clinicians who serve on regional National Multiple Sclerosis Society Healthcare Provider Councils. A total of 86 people responded: 45 physicians, 18 rehabilitation therapists, 7 psychologists, 8 advanced practice clinicians, 4 social workers, 2 nurses, a pharmacist, and a researcher.

The results, which were published earlier in 2021 in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, revealed that the survey participants were prescribing certain DMTs more often: beta-interferons (prescribed more by 28.6% of prescribers), natalizumab (23.8%), and glatiramer acetate (21.4%). Those prescribed less included alemtuzumab (64.2% prescribed it less), cladribine (52.4%), and B cell–depleting agents including ocrelizumab and rituximab (50%). Some specialists suspended drugs entirely (21.4% for alemtuzumab, 16.7% for B cell–depleting agents) or extending dosing intervals (38.1% for natalizumab, 11.9% for fingolimod and siponimod).

“We suspect that some of the lower-efficacy therapies were prescribed more often because these therapies were much less immunosuppressive, and because they did not require in-person visits that would increase risk of viral exposure from infusion center staff, or from other infusion patients,” Dr. Morrison-Banks said in an interview. “We also suspect that some of our survey respondents may have increased the dosing intervals for higher-efficacy therapies such as B cell–modulating agents – or even avoided these therapies altogether – because they were concerned that immunosuppressive agents might trigger severe complications from COVID-19.”

As she noted, “in retrospect, at least some of the concerns expressed in our survey may not have been entirely warranted, but then again, we all knew even less then about COVID-19.”

Indeed, researchers led by neurologist Tyler E. Smith, MD, of New York University Langone Multiple Sclerosis Care Center are reporting that they couldn’t find any link between the following DMTs and higher rates of COVID-19 at the New York City center: rituximab, ocrelizumab, fumerate (dimethyl fumarate, monomethyl fumarate, diroximel fumarate), sphingosine-1-phosphate modulators (fingolimod, siponimod), and natalizumab.

The researchers tracked 1,439 patients with MS who were taking the DMTs from March 2020 to March 2021. Of those, 16.0% were infected with COVID-19 (75% lab confirmed), 6.5% were hospitalized, and 0.9% died.

“We did not find an association between the choice of disease-modifying therapy and developing COVID-19 infection, nor having increased disease severity,” Dr. Smith said in an interview. “We are still analyzing data and hope to publish an updated analysis, but at this point, we don’t have conclusive evidence that DMTs, including anti-CD20 agents, need to be changed to lower the risk of COVID-19.”

Instead, he said, “at this point, we feel our energies should be spent on educating our patients on importance of vaccines and boosters. I don’t think it is necessary to switch DMTs because of COVID-19 concerns. However, this should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”

No funding is reported for the survey study, and the authors reported various disclosures. The DMT study was funded by an investigator-initiated grant from the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers, and the authors reported various disclosures.

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