Multiple studies have emphasized the potential for severe COVID-19 outcomes in patients with rheumatic disease, including patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Because these studies often group together patients with different diseases, medications, and manifestations, differences in outcomes between patients with these conditions may be difficult to tease out.
Figueroa-Parra and colleagues performed a retrospective cohort study comparing people with RA who developed COVID-19 to those who did not have RA to examine the effect of RA characteristics, such as interstitial lung disease (ILD), serostatus, and bone erosions, on COVID-19 outcomes. Patients with RA, particularly those with seropositive RA, bone erosions, and RA-associated ILD, had approximately twofold (or higher) risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes, such as mortality or mechanical ventilation, than did those without RA. However, there was no difference in outcomes seen between patients with RA who were seropositive compared with those who were seronegative, with or without bone erosions, or with or without ILD. The mechanism by which RA phenotypes and their treatment affect this risk remains unclear.
Li and colleagues also looked at COVID-19 outcomes in patients with RA according to vaccination status using a UK primary care database. Among unvaccinated patients, the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection and hospitalization or mortality because of COVID-19 were modestly higher in people with RA. Among vaccinated patients, there was no increased risk for breakthrough infection, COVID-19 hospitalization, or mortality observed in patients with RA over 3 or 6 months of follow-up, with a slight increase over 9 months of follow-up. Overall, both studies support prior research suggesting a higher risk for more severe COVID-19 in patients with RA, as well as potential mitigation with vaccination.
Predictors of RA course and severity are of great interest in determining the optimal therapy to reduce joint damage and prevent RA progression while also minimizing the adverse effects of treatment. Early disease course has been shown to be important in several studies. Giollo and colleagues compared patients with "difficult-to-treat RA," ie, RA that is resistant to multiple biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (bDMARD) or targeted synthetic DMARD (tsDMARD), with those without in an inception cohort study and found that early difficult management as well as delay of methotrexate initiation was associated with persistent inflammatory symptoms. This finding does not show a causative relationship between methotrexate and protection from the development of refractory RA but does lend support for early aggressive treatment in patients with a high inflammatory burden.
Conversely, Parisi and colleagues performed a subanalysis of the STARTER study of patients with RA in clinical remission to evaluate the impact of different therapies. The STARTER study had shown an association between ultrasound detection of tenosynovitis and RA flares. Of the more than 250 patients completing the study, ultrasound evidence of tenosynovitis was better controlled in patients on combination bDMARD and conventional synthetic DMARD (csDMARD) therapy than in those on csDMARDs monotherapy, with a trend toward reduction in flares in patients on combination therapy. Given the relatively small effect, it is not clear that combination therapy is associated with deeper remission, but, as suggested in prior studies, ultrasound evidence of tenosynovitis may be worthwhile considering prior to tapering therapy.