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Commentary: COVID vaccines and combination therapy in RA, December 2022

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Arundathi Jayatilleke, MD

Several studies have addressed the efficacy of COVID vaccines in patients with autoimmune and rheumatic diseases owing to the concern for possible reduced vaccine immunogenicity in patients who are immunocompromised or taking immunosuppressive medications. With the availability of additional booster doses for the COVID vaccines, the effect of immunosuppressive medications on the humoral response to mRNA vaccines has been of increased interest in terms of counseling patients on how to manage their medications and vaccine timing. Prior studies have suggested that holding methotrexate after COVID vaccine administration improves antibody response to the COVID vaccine. Stahl and colleagues performed a retrospective study to look at vaccine response to a third (booster) dose in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) over 65 years of age (vs those under 65 years of age) and found that patients over 65 receiving methotrexate had lower levels of neutralizing antibodies than did those receiving other treatments for RA, whereas no differences were seen with different treatments among patients under 65. Although COVID vaccine guidance continues to evolve, this finding raises the possibility of a need to tailor guidance in older patients with RA. However, the finding is far from conclusive given the small number of patients in the study.

In addition to COVID vaccine efficacy, the possibility of vaccine-related adverse effects has been a topic of concern in the rheumatology community, especially regarding the potential for a flare of autoimmune diseases. Anxiety regarding adverse effects may also exacerbate COVID vaccine hesitancy among some people. Naveen and colleagues performed an online international cross-sectional survey study regarding rheumatic diseases and 7-day adverse events. Over 9000 people completed the survey, about half of whom had autoimmune diseases (including nonrheumatic autoimmune diseases). Roughly three quarters of patients with RA reported adverse effects, with differences seen in frequencies of events between the different vaccine manufacturers. However, the majority of these adverse effects were minor (such as fatigue, headache, and body ache), without substantial differences between those with inactive and those with active RA.

The treat-to-target strategy is well-accepted in treatment of RA and pursuit of improved long-term disease outcomes. Hartman and colleagues evaluated the effect of using a treat-to-target strategy starting with the combination therapy with RA-light (COBRA-light) protocol (with initial methotrexate and tapering prednisolone) in early RA. Patients who were deemed at high risk for worsening RA (n = 150) received COBRA-light, whereas those in the low-risk category (n = 40) received methotrexate monotherapy. At 13 weeks, nonresponders were randomized to intensification or continuation of their regimens, with a primary endpoint of European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR) response and secondary endpoint of Disease Activity Score (DAS44). After 13 weeks, 73% of patients in the high-risk category achieved the targets of EULAR good response and DAS44 < 1.6, whereas after 26 weeks, 80% of patients who received intensified therapy and 44% of those who continued their regimens reached the target, though these numbers were small. Overall, the strategy appears to be successful in treatment of early RA in patients at high risk for disease progression, but it does lead to increased use of higher chronic glucocorticoid doses. In addition, the small numbers of patients in the low-risk category, as well as their less aggressive treatment, does not allow for a nuanced analysis of the best initial treatment in this group of patients.

Finally, a cohort study by Takanashi and colleagues evaluated the rates of seropositivity for rheumatoid factor (RF) and anti–cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) in patients diagnosed with RA and its association with demographic categories. Seropositivity was associated with smoking and family history of RA, as expected. Among the 1685 patients, 83% of whom were women, older age at RA diagnosis was associated with seronegativity for RF and CCP in women but not in men. The decline in seropositivity with age among women cannot be further evaluated with the limited information in this small study and may have to do with other factors, including erosive or inflammatory osteoarthritis.

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