EULAR COVID-19 Recommendations Set for Update

Sara Freeman

June 03, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology has started the process of updating their recommendations on how to manage patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

So far, the first part of the systematic literature review has been performed and the conclusions that have been drawn appear to back up the recommendations that have already been made. It’s "hard to say" if there will need to be changes, said Robert B.M. Landewé, MD, PhD, at the annual European Congress of Rheumatology, as the next phase will be for the task force members to meet and discuss the implications of the literature research."I think there will only be minor modifications and a few novel recommendations, but that is personal opinion," speculated Landewé, who is professor of rheumatology at the Amsterdam Medical Center, University of Amsterdam.

The recommendations, which were developed a little over a year ago and published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, set out provisional guidance covering four themes: infection prevention, managing patients when social distancing measures are in effect, managing patients with RMDs who develop COVID-19, and the prevention of infections other than SARS-CoV-2.

Emphasis on Quality of Evidence

According to EULAR’s standard operating procedures "updates should only be done if the evolving evidence mandates to do so," and be based on "rational arguments," Landewé said. "The last year was a bit unprecedented in that regard as we didn’t have those rational arguments before we designed our first set of recommendations and, as you can expect, that is totally due to the character of the pandemic."

So much has been published on COVID-19 since then it was time to reappraise the situation. The task force behind the recommendations met in January 2021 to discuss the results of the literature search that was centered around five main research questions.

  • Do patients with RMDs face more risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 than the general population?

  • If patients contract the virus, do they have a worse prognosis?

  • Are antirheumatic medications associated with a worse outcome in people with RMDs?

  • Should patients continue their antirheumatic medications?

  • What evidence informs the use of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 in patients with RMDs?

The latter research question is pending discussion since there were no studies to review at the time as the various vaccines had only just started to be widely available.

"We put a lot of emphasis on the quality of evidence," Landewé said. In addition to making sure that patients did indeed have COVID-19 and checking that hospitalization and death records were caused by the disease, the task force team also looked to see if there was a control group being used. An extensive risk of bias assessment was undertaken, the results of which are pending.

Of 6,665 records identified during the literature search, just 113 full-text articles were assessed for eligibility. Of those, 60% were rejected as they did not pass the quality assessment, leaving 49 articles for consideration. The majority of these looked at the incidence of COVID-19, with others focusing on risk factors or both.

Literature Search Findings on Main Research Questions

Landewé observed that the task force concluded that "current literature provides no evidence that patients with RMDs face more risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 than individuals without RMDs." They also concluded that patients with RMDs who do contract COVID-19 do not have a worse prognosis either, even though there have been a few studies suggesting a higher rate of hospitalization.

Both findings are reassuring as they fit with the existing recommendation to follow the same preventive and control measures in patients with RMDs as for the general population, but the task force is yet to determine if that recommendation should be amended.

There did not appear to be any hard evidence of any unique demographic feature or comorbidity that puts people with RMDs at more risk for severe COVID-19 than the general population. Think older age, male gender, high bodyweight, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, Landewé said.

He noted, however, that there were some single-center reports suggesting that moderate or high levels of disease activity could put people with RMDs at greater risk for COVID-related death, "which is an intriguing finding in the context of discontinuing antirheumatic medication." That is likely something the task force will be discussing when they decide how to update their recommendations.

The type of RMD may also be important, but again only single-center evidence to show that there might be an increased hospitalization risk in patients with autoinflammatory disease or risk for severe COVID-19 in those with certain connective tissue diseases. "These associations were not consistently found in other studies," so it’s an open question how the task force decides to incorporate this into the updated guidance.

As for antirheumatic medications, conclusions from the literature review suggest that there doesn’t appear to be an increased or decreased risk for severe COVID-19 among users of NSAIDs or antimalarials.

That’s not the case for glucocorticoids. There appears to be an increased risk for hospitalization and COVID-19–related death, notably among those using higher (>10 mg) daily doses. "This is, so to say, the elephant in the room," Landewé said. The current recommendation states that chronic users of glucocorticoids should continue their treatment. "The reports of additional risk could be due to glucocorticoids or to biases such as confounding by indication. So, the conclusion that we draw [is] not completely clear."

In response to a question, he clarified this a little further: "We think ‘glucocorticoid use’ is a determinant of worse health, as is the case in many RMDs. Be aware that finding a positive association between [glucocorticoid] use and bad outcome does not mean that if you reduce [glucocorticoids], your patient will have a better outcome."

The jury is also out on rituximab, which has been reported to increase the risk of severe COVID-19 and COVID-related death in two studies. There are also equivocal data on whether not using disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs increases the risk for these worse outcomes.

Asked about the absence of a recommendation on the use of the interleukin-6 inhibitor tocilizumab, Landewé responded: "We are caught up by evolving evidence. That is a generic problem in a dynamic field of COVID-19, I am afraid. What you recommend today is sometimes ‘old history’ tomorrow."

Landewé had no relevant disclosures to make.

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