A new study found that arthritis medication Actemra cut the death rate of severely-ill COVID-19 patients by 45%.
Some COVID-19 patients develop cytokine release syndrome, often referred to as “cytokine storm.” This is essentially when the human immune system goes berserk and produces a runaway inflammation response which can be deadly. Actemra’s anti-inflammatory properties which allow it to treat arthritis are thought to possibly reduce inflammation in COVID-19 patients with cytokine release syndrome. Actemra works by inhibiting the IL-6 pro-inflammatory cytokine.
The study involved 154 intubated patients at Michigan Medicine. 78 of the patients received Actemra and the other 76 did not. The results of the study were that patients given Actemra were 45% less likely to die.
The group which received Actemra was younger and less likely to have preexisting pulmonary disease. The group which received Actemra was more likely to develop an infection. 54% of the Actemra group developed a bacterial lung infection. These infections did not increase the patients’ risk of death.
Two other recent studies have also shown that Actemra may be effective in treating COVID-19 patients. A Hackensack Meridian Health study involving 547 ICU patients found that 56% of patients who received Actemra survived, compared to 46% of patients who did not receive Actemra. A recent Paris Public Hospitals study also found that COVID-19 patients given Actemra were less likely to die and less likely to need life support compared to patients not given the drug.
Actemra has been linked to serious side effects. The drug was linked with a 50% increase in stroke and heart failure risk by a 2016 study.
An investigation in 2017 uncovered the fact that the FDA had received 1,128 death reports about Actemra patients. This investigation urged the FDA to take immediate action over Actemra’s heart failure and pancreatitis risks, noting that the drug was possibly linked to higher stroke, heart attack and interstitial lung disease risk. The investigation found that 132 Actemra patients developed pancreatitis, saying this is alarming since pancreatitis is “very, very rare.”
The FDA noted in July 2018 that there were potential signals of pulmonary alveolar proteinosis, interstitial lung disease and pulmonary hypertension risks associated with the use of Actemra.
Over 6.72 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed worldwide, with over 393,000 confirmed deaths and 2.99 million confirmed recoveries. The disease has been found in over 188 countries and territories.