Hospitalized COVID-19 patients who take medications that suppress the immune system don’t have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 than those with normal immune systems, a new study finds.
Early in the pandemic, it was feared that people taking immunosuppressive drugs were at increased risk of severe COVID-19 due to their weakened immune systems. The drugs are used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases, and to prevent transplant rejection, for instance.
“In general, people taking immunosuppressive medications may be reassured that they can safely continue to do so during this pandemic,” said lead author Kayte Andersen, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore.
To learn more, her team analyzed data from nearly 222,600 U.S. adults hospitalized with COVID-19 from January 2020 to June 2021. Of those, 7% were taking immunosuppressive drugs before hospitalization.
The investigators separated the immunosuppressive medications into 17 classes and found that none was associated with a significantly higher risk of being put on a ventilator, an indication of severe COVID-19 illness.
The findings were published online Nov. 15 in The Lancet Rheumatology journal.
“These findings are encouraging and important, given how commonly these medications are used,” said study co-author G. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins.
The researchers did link one drug, rituximab, with a substantially increased risk of death. The drug is given to patients with serious medical conditions like cancer or an autoimmune disorder that has not responded to other treatments.
“Given the finding, patients taking rituximab should discuss their options with their doctor,” Andersen said in a Hopkins news release. “At a minimum, people who take rituximab should continue to protect themselves from developing COVID-19. It also makes it all the more important that people around those taking rituximab get vaccinated.”
The researchers also found that a relatively new class of immunosuppressive drugs called JAK inhibitors — used to treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and other inflammatory conditions — were associated with a 58% lower risk of COVID-related in-hospital death.
JAK inhibitors such as baricitinib have recently been used to treat severe COVID-19, the researchers noted.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more on immunotherapy for cancer.
SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, news release, Nov. 16, 2021