Conference Coverage

Patients taking TNF inhibitors can safely receive Zostavax



– A group of patients using a tumor necrosis factor inhibitor safely received the live-attenuated varicella vaccine Zostavax without any cases of herpes zoster in the first 6 weeks after vaccination in the blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled Varicella Zoster Vaccine (VERVE) trial .

Dr. Jeffrey Curtis of the University of Alabama at Birmingham

Dr. Jeffrey Curtis

According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, there is a theoretical concern that patients using a tumor necrosis factor inhibitor (TNFi) and other biologic therapies who receive a live-attenuated version of the varicella vaccine (Zostavax) could become infected with varicella from the vaccine. Patients with RA and psoriatic arthritis as well as other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions who are likely to receive TNFi therapy are also at risk for herpes zoster reactivation, Jeffrey Curtis, MD, professor of medicine in the division of clinical immunology and rheumatology of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in his presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology. There also exists a risk for patients receiving low-dose glucocorticoids.

“The challenge, of course, is there’s not a great definition and there certainly is not a well-standardized assay for how immunocompromised someone is, and so that led to the uncertainty in this patient population for this and other live-virus vaccines,” Dr. Curtis said.

Dr. Curtis and colleagues enrolled 627 participants from 33 centers into the VERVE trial. Participants were aged at least 50 years, were taking a TNFi, and had not previously received Zostavax.

Patients in both groups had a mean age of about 63 years and about two-thirds were women. The most common indications for TNFi use in the Zostavax group and the placebo group were RA (59.2% vs. 56.0%, respectively), psoriatic arthritis (24.3% vs. 23.9%), and ankylosing spondylitis (7.2% vs. 8.5%), while the anti-TNF agents used were adalimumab (38.1% vs. 27.4%), infliximab (28.4% vs. 34.2%), etanercept (19.0% vs. 23.5%), golimumab (10.0% vs. 8.1%), and certolizumab pegol (4.5% vs. 6.8%). In addition, some patients in the Zostavax and placebo groups were also taking concomitant therapies with TNFi, such as oral glucocorticoids (9.7% vs. 11.4%).

The researchers randomized participants to receive Zostavax or placebo (saline) and then followed them for 6 weeks, and looked for signs of wild-type or vaccine-strain varicella infection. If participants were suspected to have varicella, they were assessed clinically, underwent polymerase chain reaction testing, and rashes were photographed. At baseline and at 6 weeks, the researchers collected serum and peripheral blood mononuclear cells to determine patient immunity to varicella. After 6 months, participants were unmasked to the treatment arm of the study.

Dr. Curtis and colleagues found no confirmed varicella infection cases at 6 weeks. “To the extent that 0 cases out of 317 vaccinated people is reassuring, there were no cases, so that was exceedingly heartening as a result,” he said.

Out of 20 serious adverse events total in the groups, 15 events occurred before 6 months, including 8 suspected varicella cases in the Zostavax group and 7 in the placebo group. However, there were no positive cases of varicella – either wild type or vaccine type – after polymerase chain reaction tests. Overall, there were 268 adverse events in 195 participants, with 73 events (27.2%) consisting of injection-site reactions. The researchers also found no difference in the rate of disease flares, and found no differences in adverse reactions between groups, apart from a higher rate of injection-site reactions in the varicella group (19.4% vs. 4.2%).

With regard to immunogenicity, the humoral immune response was measured through IgG, which showed an immune response in the varicella group at 6 weeks (geometric mean fold ratio, 1.33; 95% confidence interval, 1.18-1.51), compared with the placebo group (GMFR, 1.02; 95% CI, 0.91-1.14); cell-mediated immune response was measured by interferon-gamma, which also showed an immune response in the live-vaccine group (GMFR, 1.49; 95% CI, 1.14-1.94), compared with participants who received placebo (GMFR, 1.14; 95% CI, 0.87-1.48). In preliminary 1-year data, IgG immune response was elevated in the varicella group (GMFR, 1.46; 95% CI, 1.08-1.99), but there was no elevated immune response for interferon-gamma (GMFR, 0.78; 95% CI, 0.49-1.25).

“I think the trial is encouraging not only for its result with the live zoster vaccine and TNF-treated patients, but also challenge the notion that, if you need to, a live-virus vaccine may in fact be able to be safely given to people with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, even those treated with biologics like tumor necrosis factor inhibitors,” Dr. Curtis said.

As patients in VERVE consented to long-term follow-up in health plan claims and EHR data, it will be possible to follow these patients in the future to assess herpes zoster reactivation. Dr. Curtis also noted that a new trial involving the recombinant, adjuvanted zoster vaccine (Shingrix) is currently in development and should begin next year.

The VERVE trial was supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Dr. Curtis reported serving as a current member of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Herpes Zoster Work Group. He and some of the other authors reported financial relationships with many pharmaceutical companies.

SOURCE: Curtis J et al. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2019;71(suppl 10), Abstract 824.

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