Oct. 20 (UPI) -- Treatment with the rheumatoid arthritis drug tocilizumab, sold as Actemra, reduces the risk for death among hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 by about 30%, a study published Tuesday by JAMA Internal Medicine found.
Among 433 patients infected with the new coronavirus who received the drug, a monoclonal antibody, while in the intensive care unit, 29% died from the disease, the data showed.
And of the approximately 3,500 patients in the study who did not receive tocilizumab, 41% died.
"We found that patients who received tocilizumab in their first two days of ICU admission had a 30% relative reduction in the risk of death compared to patients who treatment did not include early use of tocilizumab," study co-author Dr. David E. Leaf told UPI.
"The beneficial effect of tocilizumab on survival was consistent across categories of age, sex and illness severity, and was also observed in patients who either did or did not receive corticosteroids," said Leaf, a kidney specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Several studies, including the Recovery trial in England, have found that corticosteroids help reduce the severe inflammation experienced by those who are seriously ill with COVID-19.
Tocilizumab, an immunosuppressive drug designed to reduce inflammation, works to suppress interleukin 6, a type of protein involved in the inflammatory process in a number of diseases, including COVID-19.
For this study, the researchers reviewed data on 3,924 patients admitted to the ICUs of 68 hospitals across the United States because of serious illness from the new coronavirus.
Of the patients included in the study, 47% had lower-than-normal levels of oxygen in their blood at the time of their ICU admission, and 38% required mechanical ventilation support to breathe. Just over 39% of the patients in the study died, the researchers said.
However, patients treated with tocilizumab were found to have a 30% lower risk for death from COVID-19 than those who did not receive the drug, they said.
Although, tocilizumab and steroids both have anti-inflammatory properties, the rheumatoid arthritis drug offers more targeted therapy, which may be why it's effective in COVID-19, Leaf said.
"Our findings provide compelling evidence that if used early and in critically ill patients, tocilizumab is effective in reducing mortality," he said.
He added: "The reduction in mortality that we observed is similar to that which was seen with steroids in the Recovery trial among their sickest patients and, interestingly, the benefit was observed to a similar extent irrespective of whether patients were taking steroids concurrently.