From the Journals

Rheumatologic disease activity an important influencer of COVID-19 death risk



People with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) who contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus appear more likely to die from COVID-19 if their rheumatologic condition is not being well controlled at the time of their infection.

Dr. Pedro Machado of University College London

Dr. Pedro Machado

New data from the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance (GRA) physician registry reported in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases have found that the odds of dying from COVID-19 were 87% higher in individuals recorded as having moderate to high disease activity versus those reported to be in remission or having low disease activity.

“I think this really highlights the importance of continuing to appropriately, and actively, treat our patients, and the importance of controlling their disease,” Pedro Machado, MD, PhD, said in an interview. Dr. Machado, an associate professor in rheumatology and muscle diseases at University College London and a consultant rheumatologist at several U.K. hospitals, has been involved in the GRA physician registry from the start, and sits on the GRA steering committee.

Alongside higher disease activity, several other important factors were found to be associated with increased odds of dying from COVID-19 – older age, male gender, and the presence of one or more comorbidities, such as hypertension combined with cardiovascular disease or chronic lung disease.

These demographic and disease-based factors have been linked to an increased risk for COVID-19–related hospitalization before, both in people with RMDs and in the general population, but the latest GRA physician registry data now take that a step further, and link them also to an increased risk for death, together with several other factors more specific to RMDs.

Logging COVID-19 rheumatologic cases

Since the start of the global pandemic, the potential effects that SARS-CoV-2 infection might have on people with RMDs in particular has concerned the rheumatology community. The main worries being that, either because of the underlying RMD itself or to its treatment, there may be immunoregulatory deficits or other risk factors that would make individuals more susceptible to not only infection but also to developing more severe COVID-19 than the general population.

These concerns led to the rapid formation of the GRA and the COVID-19 GRA physician registry in March 2020 to collect and analyze data on adults with rheumatic disease and confirmed or presumptive COVID-19. Entries into the registry are made by or under the direction of rheumatologists, and this is a voluntary process.

“This population cannot ever be entirely representative of the population of patients with rheumatic diseases,” Dr. Machado acknowledged. There will be selection and other biases that affect the reported data. That said, it’s the largest database of reported COVID-19 cases in adult rheumatology patients across the world, with more than 9,000 cases so far included from multiple registries, including those based in Europe and North and South America. Data from one of these – the French RMD cohort – have also recently been published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, showing much the same findings but on a national level.

Hospitalization was the focus of a previous report because “you need large sample sizes” to look at endpoints that occur less frequently. When the first analysis was done, there were around 600 cases from 40 countries in the registry with sufficient data that could be used. Now, with a greater number of recorded cases, factors influencing the risk for death could be examined.


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