Conference Coverage

EULAR’s COVID-19 recommendations offer no surprises



As might be expected, the “EULAR [European League Against Rheumatism] provisional recommendations for the management of rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases [RMDs] in the context of SARS-CoV-2” concur with much of the guidance already released on how best to manage patients during the current pandemic.

Dr. Robert Landewé, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at the University of Amsterdam

Dr. Robert Landewé

Highlights of the five overarching principles are that, contrary to earlier expectations, “there is no indication that patients with RMDs have an additional, or have a higher, risk of contracting the virus, or that they fare a worse course” than the general population, said the task force convener Robert Landewé, MD, PhD, professor of rheumatology at the University of Amsterdam.

“The second pertinent highlight is that, when it comes to managerial discussions, whether or not to stop or to start treatment for RMDs, rheumatologists should definitely be involved,” Dr. Landewé said during a live session at the annual European Congress of Rheumatology, held online this year due to COVID-19. “In practice, something that happens very often is that immunosuppressive drugs are stopped by medical specialists involved in the care of COVID but without any expertise in treating patients with rheumatic diseases. We should try to avoid that situation.”

The third highlight, something many rheumatologists may already be well aware of, is that rheumatology drugs are being used to treat COVID-19 patients without RMDs and a shortage of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) agents is a real possibility. As such, the fifth overarching highlight states that the availability of both synthetic and biologic DMARDs is “a delicate societal responsibility” and that “the off-label use of DMARDs in COVID-19 outside the context of clinical trials should be discouraged.”

The EULAR recommendation are now published online in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases and they are “what you could call an unprecedented set of recommendations,” Dr. Landewé said. “We have never done this before,” he added, referring to the speed and way in which they had to be put together, remotely, and with little scientific evidence currently available. “Three months ago we hadn’t even heard about the virus.”

From the first patient being identified in the Hubei province of China in November 2019, to the first U.S. patient in the state of Washington on Jan. 20, 2020, and to the first European patient identified a little over 10 days later, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm. It was only declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, however, and Dr. Landewé noted that the response to the pandemic had been very variable – some countries locking down their borders early, while others took their time to make an appropriate response, if at all.

The rheumatology community was particularly concerned, Dr. Landewé said, because people with autoimmune diseases who were taking immunosuppressant drugs might be at higher risk for becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, and may be at higher risk than others for a worse disease course. Thankfully, that seems not to be the case according to data that are emerging from new registries that have been set up, including EULAR’s own COVID-19 registry.

There are 13 recommendations that cover 4 themes: general measures and prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection; the management of RMD patients during the pandemic; the management of RMD patients who have COVID-19; and the prevention of other pulmonary infections in RMD patients.

Highlighting the first three general recommendations, Dr. Landewé said: “Follow the regular guidelines in your country; if a patient with RMD does not have symptoms of COVID-19, simply continue RMD treatments,” albeit with a couple of exceptions.

The next four recommendation highlights are to avoid visits to the hospital or to the office; use remote monitoring via the telephone, for example; and if visits cannot be avoided, then take appropriate precautions. Finally, if you suspect a patient has COVID-19, do a test.

If patients test positive, then the next four recommendations cover what to do, such as continuing use of RMD treatments, but in the case of glucocorticoids this should be the lowest possible dose necessary. There is no consensus on what to do in cases of mild symptoms; the recommendation is to “decide on a case-by-case basis,” said Dr. Landewé. If a patient’s symptoms worsen, then “seek expert advice immediately and follow local treatment recommendations. The rheumatologist is not the expert to treat COVID-19,” he added. That responsibility lies with the pulmonologist, infectious disease specialist, or maybe the intensive care specialist, depending on local situations.

Dr. Ted Mikuls

On the whole, the EULAR recommendations are pretty similar to those already released by the American College of Rheumatology, said Ted Mikuls, MD, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha. The ACR recommendations are “slightly more prescriptive”, he suggested, with 25 final guidance statements. For example, general statements focused not only on the use of glucocorticoids, but also other medicines, such as antihypertensives.

“There’s really not a [lot of], I would say, major differences in the two efforts and that’s ... somewhat reassuring that we’re approaching the unknown from very different parts of the world, and driving in a very similar place,” commented Dr. Mikuls, who is a member of the ACR COVID-19 recommendations task force.

“I think one of the very important similarities that I would highlight is that, in the absence of known exposure, in the absence of COVID-19 infection, our panel felt very strongly about the importance of continuing rheumatic disease treatments,” Dr. Mikuls observed. The ACR guidelines also touch upon societal perspectives, including “some statements that were made very specific to lupus, and the use of antimalarials, given supply chain issues that we have encountered.”

Dr. Mikuls also said that the American recommendations emphasized that “you really have to manage active inflammatory rheumatic disease. Even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, given what we saw as the potential risk of unchecked inflammation and unchecked rheumatic disease.”

One notable difference, however, is that the European recommendations advise on immunizations and pneumonia prophylaxis, saying that all patients without COVID-19 symptoms should make sure they are up to date with any recommended vaccinations, “with a particular focus on pneumococcal and influenza vaccinations,” Dr. Landewé said.

Another difference is that the ACR recommendations are a living document and could potentially be updated monthly if the evidence arrives to allow that. In that sense, the American guidance is more agile, with EULAR expecting to update its recommendations every 3 months.

“The current evidence is extremely sparse and fragmented,” Dr. Landewé said. “We, as a task force are essentially flying blindly. We also have to cover many jurisdictions within Europe, with many conflicting opinions. So the last word to say is that updates are truly necessary, but we have to wait a while.”

SOURCE: Landewé RB et al. Ann Rheum Dis. 2020 Jun 5. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2020-217877.

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