A few recent peer-reviewed or preliminary studies provide conflicting results about the efficacy of the interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitors (i.e., IL-6 receptor blockade) Tocilizumab and Sarilumab in COVID-19 treatment. However, some of these studies report encouraging results, particularly in the treatment of severe cases.
These monoclonal antibodies against the interleukin-6 receptor have been used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
The study by S. Gupta et al., published in JAMA Internal Medicine, analyzed whether Tocilizumab can rescue patients with severe respiratory inflammation due to COVID-19.
Selected patients were given a Tocilizumab (n=433) or standard treatment (n=3491) during the first 2 days after ICU admission. From the 433 patients admitted to ICU treated with Tocilizumab, 125 died (28.9%) compared to 1419 deaths (40.6%) from the 3491 patients receiving standard therapy.
In the 30-day mortality follow-up, Tocilizumab reduced mortality to 27.5% when compared to 37.1% from the standard therapy group. Thus, among critically ill patients, the risk of in-hospital mortality in this study was lower in patients treated with Tocilizumab in the first 2 days of ICU admission.
The New England Journal of Medicine Study
In contrast, the study by J.H. Stone et al., recently showed no benefit of IL-6 neutralization therapy on COVID-19 survival. In this study, investigators selected COVID-19 infected patients that presented at least two of the following signs: fever >38°C, pulmonary infiltrates, or the need of oxygen supplementation to maintain saturation >92%. Selected patients then received a single dose (8mg/Kg) of Tocilizumab (n=161) or placebo (n=81).
In this study, Tocilizumab therapy failed to decrease mortality or intubation rate when compared to placebo-treated patients. Thus, it did “not provide support for the concept that early interleukin-6 receptor blockade is an effective treatment strategy in moderately ill patients hospitalized with Covid-19”.
Of note, this study also confirmed that patients with higher serum interleukin-6 concentrations at baseline were more likely to have a poor outcome”.
Preliminary, non- peer-reviewed study published online on the medRxiv website
This study, by Anthony C. Gordon et al., published online, January 9, 2021, on www.medrxiv.org
evaluated the effects of Tocilizumab and Sarilumab in patients with Covid-19, within 24 hours of commencing organ support in an ICU, receiving either Tocilizumab (8mg/kg) or Sarilumab (400mg) or standard care (control).
Roche Products Ltd and Sanofi supported the trial through provision of Tocilizumab and Sarilumab in the United Kingdom.
Hospital mortality was 28.0% (98/350) for Tocilizumab, 22.2% (10/45) for Sarilumab and 35.8% (142/397) for control. The overall data, from nearly 800 severely ill COVID-19 patients involved in this international study, showed that the two drugs reduced mortality rates from 35.8% in a control group to 27.3% among patients receiving either Tocilizumab or Sarilumab.
In conclusion, as per this study, in critically ill patients with Covid-19 the IL-6 inhibitors Tocilizumab and Sarilumab, are both effective treatments compared with current standard of care, which included corticosteroids in the majority of patients (>80%).
The actual controversy of the IL-6 inhibitors’ efficacy between these studies can be explained, at least in part, to patient selection related to primary outcomes, such as ICU admission, intubation, timing of treatment, ICU follow-up or patients ethnic background, etc.
Many previously reported trials, included less severely ill patients, thus, it is possible that the maximum benefit from IL-6 inhibition is seen in the most severely ill patients.
The Efficacy of IL-6 Inhibitor Tocilizumab – a Recent Systematic Review
In a recent systemic review conducted by Avi Kaye and Robert Siegel, at Stanford University, their aim was to evaluate the efficacy of Tocilizumab in reducing COVID-19 mortality. PubMed and SearchWorks databases were searched for sixteen case-control studies comparing mortality between Tocilizumab and standard of care and identified for quantitative synthesis.
Importantly, the results from this systematic analysis “provide positive evidence for the potential efficacy of Tocilizumab to treat severe COVID-19”.
As per the authors of this systematic review, taking into account some methodological limitations in the studies analysed, including the potential for an inadequate evaluation due to unpublished data, the “use of Tocilizumab in outside the clinical trial context is discouraged until results from these clinical trials are released”.
Gabriel Bassi, PhD
Assistant Editor, BrainImmune
Ilia Elenkov, MD, PhD