The use of drugs intended for rheumatoid arthritis can improve the survival chances of patients seriously ill with Covid-19, according to research by the Utrecht university hospital (UMC) in the Netherlands.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which affects mainly the joints, is an autoimmune condition, which means that the body’s immune system, supposed to protect against infections, is instead attacking itself.
Covid-19 on the other hand is a viral infection, but research has shown it also has an autoimmune component: when the immune system reacts to fight off the virus, it can go too far, making the illness worse.
Two UMC specialists, intensive care specialist Lennie Derde and microbiologist Marc Bonten, are coordinators of the international study into lung diseases, known as REMAP-CAP.
Their finding – which have yet to be peer-reviewed – suggest that the drug tocilizumab, an immune modulator used to fight RA, has an effect on seriously ill Covid patients in the ICU, reducing mortality by 8.5%. It also had a positive effect on the length of time patients spent on life support in ICU before their condition improved.
In a second stage of the research sarilumab, another immune-modulator, also had an effect on mortality, as well as cutting recovery time by seven to ten days.
“This is an important finding that could have immediate consequences for the sickest patients with Covid-19,” said Dr. Derde.
“This research shows that these drugs can increase the chances of survival and recovery in the most severely ill adult patients on ventilated intensive care. At a time when hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 continue to increase, it is critically important that we continue to look for effective treatments that can help stop this disease.”
The REMAP-CAP project is an international cooperation covering Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. UMC Utrecht coordinates the European part of the project, whose aim is to speed up testing of possible medications in times of pandemic.