May 24 (UPI) -- Treatment with a rheumatoid arthritis drug reduced the risk for death from pneumonia caused by COVID-19 among hospitalized patients by nearly 40%, a study published Monday by JAMA Internal Medicine found.
After up to 90 days of hospital care, seven of 63 patients, or 11%, given at least one dose of tocilizumab had died. In comparison, of those who received "usual care" with other treatments, 11 of 67 had died, the data showed.
Based on the findings, tocilizumab, a monoclonal antibody -- a laboratory-made protein designed to mimic the immune system's ability to fight off disease -- used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, may help patients with pneumonia caused by COVID-19, researchers said.
"Tocilizumab could be considered in patients hospitalized with moderate to severe pneumonia requiring [oxygen supplementation]," study co-author Dr. Xavier Mariette told UPI in an email.
"It seems that the drug could benefit more patients with high inflammation," said Mariette, head of the rheumatology department at Bicetre Hospital in Paris.
Tocilizumab has not yet been approved for use in patients with COVID-19 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, the World Health Organization is analyzing data from several clinical trials of the drug, which to date have produced mixed results, according to Mariette and his colleagues.
In October, the FDA approved the antiviral drug remdesivir for use against the coronavirus, and the agency green-lighted two monoclonal antibodies -- bamlanivimab and etesevimab -- for mild to moderate illness from the disease in February.
For this study, the French researchers compared tocilizumab with usual care with other treatments in patients with pneumonia caused by COVID-19.
Sixty-three of the study participants received an infusion of tocilizumab at a dose of 8 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, while 67 were given usual care.
Tocilizumab appears to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, which may be a sign of widespread inflammation, in the blood, they said.
Those with lower levels of C-reactive protein following tocilizumab treatment were less likely to require ventilator support to maintain breathing than patients with higher amounts of the protein after usual care, according to the researchers.
"An important limitation of this study is that it [was] set-up in March 2020 and thus very few patients were taking steroids," Mariette said.
"That has now become the standard of care for these patients with moderate to severe pneumonia [so] the next question is to compare" steroid treatment with tocilizumab plus steroids, he said.