J&J, BMS arthritis drugs lowered death risk among hospitalized COVID patients in federal study

While the COVID-19 pandemic spurred innovative new antibody drugs and vaccines, scientists have found that existing drugs can sometimes help in a patient's battle against the virus.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) led a large clinical trial on rheumatoid arthritis drugs in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. While researchers found that the treatments did not significantly shorten recovery time, they did improve clinical status and reduce deaths.

The study tested the drugs to see whether they could minimize the effects of an overactive immune response. For the study, researchers looked at Johnson & Johnson’s Remicade, Bristol Myers Squibb’s Orencia and, originally, AbbVie’s investigational medicine cenicriviroc. The team stopped the cenicriviroc study last September based on the findings from a data monitoring board, which cited a lack of efficacy.

The 518 patients who received Remicade had a 10% death rate as opposed to the 14.5% in the placebo group. That amounted to a 40.5% reduction in death risk, the NIH said. Additionally, patients in the Remicade group had 43.8% better odds of clinical improvement than the placebo group.

For the Orencia group, researchers observed an 11% death rate, compared with 15% for patients on placebo. That amounted to a 37.4% reduction in risk of death. In addition, the Orencia group experienced 34.2% better odds of clinical improvement at 28 days after the start of the study.

Bristol Myers Squibb said in a statement that it plans to discuss the data and potential next steps with the FDA.

It’s not the first news of existing rheumatoid arthritis drugs providing benefits to hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Last June, Roche’s Actemra secured an FDA authorization to be used alongside corticosteroids for hospitalized patients who require oxygen support. Eli Lilly and Incyte’s Olumiant got the nod a few weeks ago as a standalone treatment after eighteen months of the drug being used in combination with Gilead’s Veklury.

Way back in March 2020, China added Actemra to its COVID-19 treatment guidelines.

As drugs that calm an overactive immune system, arthritis meds are believed to help combat a severe immune overreaction known as a “cytokine storm" in some COVID patients.

The NIH trial enrolled 1,971 participants at medical facilities in the U.S. and Latin America throughout October 2020 to December 2021. The team plans to publish the full data in a scientific journal in the fall of 2022.