ACR updates COVID vaccine guidance with booster schedule


Patients on immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory therapy should receive a third dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine or the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at least 28 days after the second dose of either of these two mRNA vaccines, according to updated recommendations from the American College of Rheumatology.

holding a bottle of covid-19 vaccine Mongkolchon Akesin/Getty Images

The update follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that certain immunocompromised patients receive a third dose of an mRNA vaccine to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Individuals receiving the Pfizer vaccine must be aged 12 years and older, while those receiving the Moderna vaccine must be 18 years and older, the ACR emphasized.

“These statements were based upon a dearth of high-quality data and are not intended to replace clinical judgment,” the authors wrote. “Modifications made to treatment plans, particularly in complex rheumatic disease patients, are highly disease, patient, geography, and time specific and, therefore, must be individualized as part of a shared decision-making process.”

The task force recommended using the same mRNA vaccine booster as the patient received for their initial two-dose series when possible, but notes that either mRNA vaccine is acceptable, and recommends the mRNA vaccine for patients who have yet to receive any vaccine because of the availability of the booster. The task force emphasized that they achieved no consensus on recommending a booster mRNA vaccine to patients who received a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine because the safety data are uncertain.

The updated guidance also identifies the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization in August for the use of REGEN-COV monoclonal antibody treatment for emergency postexposure prophylaxis for COVID-19 in adults and adolescents aged 12 years and older who weigh at least 40 kg and are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, which includes patients receiving immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory therapies other than hydroxychloroquine. Patients who have been exposed to an individual with COVID-19 should discuss this treatment with their health care provider as an added precaution; however, the guidance emphasized that the prophylactic treatment is not a substitute for COVID-19 vaccination.

The recommendations advise clinicians to counsel their patients to refrain from taking certain immunomodulatory or immunosuppressive medications for 1-2 weeks after booster vaccination if disease activity allows, with the exception of glucocorticoids and anticytokines such as tumor necrosis factor inhibitors and others including interleukin-17, IL-12/23, IL-23, IL-1R, IL-6R antagonists, for which the task force did not achieve a consensus recommendation.

The guidance notes that patients on rituximab or other anti-CD20 medications “should discuss the optimal timing [of the booster] with their rheumatology provider” and that some practitioners measure CD19 B cells as a tool with which to time the booster and subsequent rituximab dosing. For those who elect to dose without such information, or for whom such measurement is not available or feasible, provide the booster 2-4 weeks before next anticipated rituximab dose (e.g., at month 5.0 or 5.5 for patients on an every-6-month rituximab dosing schedule).”

There was strong consensus from the task force that health care providers “should not routinely order any lab testing (e.g., antibody tests for IgM and/or IgG to spike or nucleocapsid proteins) to assess immunity to COVID-19 post vaccination, nor to assess the need for vaccination in a yet-unvaccinated person.”

“The updated information from the ACR addresses not only booster vaccination but also other important and practical issues facing rheumatology providers and their patients related to the pandemic,” said task force chair Jeffrey R. Curtis, MD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an ACR statement announcing the updates.

“Although the guidance is issued in light of the best evidence available, the science regarding COVID-19 vaccination as it affects the practice of rheumatology is undergoing rapid evolution,” he noted. “We need direct evidence such as that from randomized trials to inform the best practices of what we can do to protect our patients from SARS-CoV-2.”

The update retains the current recommendations that rheumatology patients follow all public health guidelines regarding physical distancing and other preventive measures following vaccination, but the task force did not recommend exceeding current public health guidance. “The appropriateness for continued preventive measures (e.g., masking, physical distancing) should be discussed with patients as their rheumatology providers deem appropriate,” they wrote.

The full updated version of the ACR’s COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Guidance for Patients with Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Diseases will be published in Arthritis & Rheumatology. The summary was developed by the ACR COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Guidance Task Force, which included 9 rheumatologists, 2 infectious disease specialists, and 2 public health experts with current or past employment history with the CDC.

The ACR encourages clinicians with questions or concerns to email for support.

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