Patients being treated for RA or spondyloarthritis who develop symptoms of COVID-19 do not appear to be at higher risk of respiratory or life-threatening complications, results from a new study in Italy suggest.

Such patients, the study authors wrote, do not need to be taken off their immunosuppressive medications if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.

In a letter published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, Sara Monti, MD, and colleagues in the rheumatology department of the Fondazione IRCCS Policlinico in San Matteo, Italy, described results from an observational cohort of 320 patients (68% women; mean age, 55 years) with RA or spondyloarthritis from a single outpatient clinic. The vast majority of subjects (92%) were taking biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (bDMARD), including tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, while the rest were taking targeted synthetic DMARDs (tsDMARD).

Four patients in the cohort developed laboratory-confirmed COVID-19; another four developed symptoms highly suggestive of the disease but did not receive confirmatory testing, and five had contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case but did not develop symptoms of COVID-19.

Among the eight confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients, only one was hospitalized. All temporarily withdrew bDMARD or tsDMARD treatment at symptom onset.

“To date, there have been no significant relapses of the rheumatic disease,” Dr. Monti and colleagues reported. “None of the patients with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 or with a highly suggestive clinical picture developed severe respiratory complications or died. Only one patient, aged 65, required admission to hospital and low-flow oxygen supplementation for a few days.”

The findings “do not allow any conclusions on the incidence rate of SARS-CoV-2 infection in patients with rheumatic diseases, nor on the overall outcome of immunocompromised patients affected by COVID-19,” the investigators cautioned, adding that such patients should receive careful attention and follow-up. “However, our preliminary experience shows that patients with chronic arthritis treated with bDMARDs or tsDMARDs do not seem to be at increased risk of respiratory or life-threatening complications from SARS-CoV-2, compared with the general population.”

Dr. Monti and colleagues noted that, during previous outbreaks of other coronaviruses, no increased mortality was reported for people taking immunosuppressive drugs for a range of conditions, including autoimmune diseases.

“These data can support rheumatologists [in] avoiding the unjustifiable preventive withdrawal of DMARDs, which could lead to an increased risk of relapses and morbidity from the chronic rheumatological condition,” the researchers concluded.

Dr. Monti and colleagues reported no outside funding or financial conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Monti S et al. Ann Rheum Dis. 2020 April 2. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2020-217424.