Conference Coverage

Latest data: COVID vaccine safety, protection, and breakthrough infections in inflammatory, autoimmune diseases



– The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on patients with rheumatic and nonrheumatic autoimmune diseases is ongoing and not yet fully comprehended. New data presented at the annual European Congress of Rheumatology, primarily derived from the global COVID-19 in Autoimmune Diseases (COVAD) survey but not limited to it, provide reassurance regarding the protection and safety of COVID-19 vaccines for older and younger adults, as well as for pregnant and breastfeeding women. These data also explore the influence of underlying diseases and medications on breakthrough SARS-CoV-2 infections and infection outcomes.

Safety of vaccines in patients with autoimmune or immune-mediated diseases

Following vaccination, even with low levels of antibodies, the risk of severe COVID-19 remains relatively low for patients who receive immunosuppressive therapy for various immune-mediated inflammatory diseases (IMIDs). This encouraging finding comes from the Nor-vaC study, presented by Hilde Ørbo, MD, of the Center for Treatment of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Diseases, Diakonhjemmet Hospital, Oslo.

During the presentation, Dr. Ørbo stated: “We did not find any specific diagnosis or medication associated with a significantly higher risk of hospitalization.” Receiving booster doses of the vaccine, having high levels of anti-spike antibodies after vaccination, and achieving hybrid immunity are correlated with further reductions in the risk of breakthrough SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Dr. Hilde Ørbo, of the Center for Treatment of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Diseases, Diakonhjemmet Hospital, Oslo Dr. Hilde Ørbo

Dr. Hilde Ørbo

Between Feb. 15, 2021, and Feb. 15, 2023, COVID-19 affected a similar proportion among the 729 patients and 350 healthy control persons (67% and 68%, respectively). Among the patients, 22 reported severe COVID-19, whereas none of the healthy control persons did. However, there were no fatalities among the patients. The study cohort consisted of patients with various IMIDs; 70% had an inflammatory joint disease. The use of immunosuppressive medications also varied, with 63% of patients using tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, either as monotherapy or in combination with other treatments, and other patients taking medications such as methotrexate, interleukin inhibitors, Janus kinase inhibitors, vedolizumab (Entyvio), and others.

While being older than 70 years and the presence of comorbidities were identified as risk factors for severe COVID-19, there was a significant reduction in risk with each additional vaccine dose. These results support the protective role of repeated COVID-19 vaccination for patients with IMIDs who are receiving immunosuppressive therapies; they yield a favorable prognosis even with the Omicron variant.

The study further compared the risk of severe COVID-19 between a group with hybrid immunity (having received three vaccine doses and experiencing breakthrough infection with the Omicron variant) and a group that received a fourth vaccine dose within the same time frame. The difference was striking: Hybrid immunity was associated with a 5.8-fold decrease in risk, compared with four-dose vaccination (P < .0001).

The level of antibodies, measured 2-4 weeks after the last vaccination, was predictive of the risk of breakthrough COVID-19. An antibody level above 6000 binding antibody units/mL after vaccination was significantly associated with a reduction in risk. “We can conclude that patients who receive multiple vaccine doses have a lower risk of COVID-19,” Dr. Ørbo said. “In patients who recently experienced breakthrough infections, the administration of a booster vaccine dose might be delayed.”

Dr. Hendrik Schulze-Koops, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich EULAR

Dr. Hendrik Schulze-Koops

“The virus has undergone changes throughout the pandemic, while the vaccines have remained relatively stable. Are we anticipating more infections over time?” asked Hendrik Schulze-Koops, MD, PhD, of Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (Germany), the session moderator. In response, Dr. Ørbo stated that 85% of the recorded infections in the study occurred after the emergence of the Omicron variant, and time was considered a covariable in the analysis.

These data shed light on a topic discussed by Pedro Machado, MD, PhD, professor and consultant in rheumatology and neuromuscular diseases at University College London, during his scientific session talk entitled, “Unsolved Issues of COVID Vaccination and Re-vaccination.” Dr. Machado referred to the VROOM study published in 2022, which examined the interruption of methotrexate for 2 weeks following booster administration. Both groups demonstrated a significant antibody response, but the group that stopped taking methotrexate showed double the antibody titers.

Dr. Pedro Machado of University College London

Dr. Pedro Machado

However, he emphasized, “what remains unknown is the clinical relevance of these differences in terms of severe infection, hospitalization, or even death. The potential benefit of increased immunogenicity by interrupting conventional synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs [csDMARDs] such as methotrexate before or after vaccination needs to be balanced against the potential risk of disease flare. Ultimately, decision-making should be individualized based on factors such as comorbidities, disease activity, and other considerations.” The results presented by Dr. Ørbo suggest that, while there may be a clinical difference in terms of severe infection, the overall prognosis for vaccinated patients is reasonably good.

Regarding other DMARDs, such as biologics, the approach may differ. Dr. Machado suggested: “In patients using rituximab or other B cell–depleting therapies, SARS-CoV-2 vaccination should be scheduled in a way that optimizes vaccine immunogenicity. A minimum of 10 B cells/mcL of blood is likely a relevant threshold above which a sufficient cellular and immune response is established.”


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