Article Text

Safety of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 in people with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases: results from the EULAR Coronavirus Vaccine (COVAX) physician-reported registry
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  1. Pedro M Machado1,2,3,
  2. Saskia Lawson-Tovey4,5,
  3. Anja Strangfeld6,
  4. Elsa F Mateus7,8,
  5. Kimme L Hyrich4,5,
  6. Laure Gossec9,10,
  7. Loreto Carmona11,
  8. Ana Rodrigues12,13,14,
  9. Bernd Raffeiner15,
  10. Catia Duarte12,16,17,
  11. Eric Hachulla18,
  12. Eric Veillard19,
  13. Eva Strakova20,
  14. Gerd R Burmester21,
  15. Gözde Kübra Yardımcı22,
  16. Jose A Gomez-Puerta23,24,
  17. Julija Zepa25,26,
  18. Lianne Kearsley-Fleet27,
  19. Ludovic Trefond28,
  20. Maria Cunha12,29,
  21. Marta Mosca30,
  22. Martina Cornalba31,
  23. Martin Soubrier32,
  24. Nicolas Roux33,
  25. Olivier Brocq34,
  26. Patrick Durez35,
  27. Richard Conway36,
  28. Tiphaine Goulenok37,
  29. Johannes WJ Bijlsma38,
  30. Iain B McInnes39,
  31. Xavier Mariette40
  1. 1 Centre for Rheumatology & Department of Neuromuscular Diseases, University College London (UCL), London, UK
  2. 2 National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
  3. 3 Department of Rheumatology, Northwick Park Hospital, London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, London, UK
  4. 4 Centre for Genetics and Genomics Versus Arthritis, Centre for Musculoskeletal Research, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  5. 5 National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Manchester Biomedical Research Centre, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Manchester, UK
  6. 6 Epidemiology and Health Care Research, German Rheumatism Research Center (DRFZ Berlin), Berlin, Germany
  7. 7 People with Arthritis/Rheumatism in Europe (PARE), European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR), Kilchberg, Switzerland
  8. 8 Portuguese League Against Rheumatic Diseases (LPCDR), Lisbon, Portugal
  9. 9 Institut Pierre Louis d'Epidémiologie et de Santé Publique, INSERM, Sorbonne Université, Paris, France
  10. 10 Department of Rheumatology, Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, AP-HP, Paris, France
  11. 11 Instituto de Salud Musculoesquelética, Madrid, Spain
  12. 12 Reuma.pt, Sociedade Portuguesa de Reumatologia, Lisbon, Portugal
  13. 13 EpiDoC unit, CEDOC, Nova Medical School, Lisbon, Portugal
  14. 14 Rheumatology Unit, Hospital dos Lusíadas, Lisbon, Portugal
  15. 15 Department of Rheumatology, Central Hospital of Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy
  16. 16 Department of Rheumatology, Centro Hospitalar e Universitário de Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal
  17. 17 Coimbra Institute for Clinical and Biomedical Research, Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal
  18. 18 Département de Médecine Interne et Immunologie Clinique, CHU Lille, Referral Center for Rare Systemic Autoimmune Diseases North and Northwest of France, INSERM U995, Lille Inflammation Research International Center (LIRIC), University of Lille, Lille, France
  19. 19 Cabinet de Rhumatologie des "Marines de Chasles", Saint Malo, France
  20. 20 Department of Internal Medicine, Faculty Hospital Prešov, Prešov, Slovakia
  21. 21 Department of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology, Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  22. 22 Division of Rheumatology, Department of Internal Medicine, Hacettepe University School of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey
  23. 23 Department of Rheumaology, Hospital Clinic, Barcelona, Spain
  24. 24 University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
  25. 25 Pauls Stradins Clinical University Hospital, Riga, Latvia
  26. 26 Riga Stradins University, Riga, Latvia
  27. 27 Centre for Epidemiology Versus Arthritis, Centre for Musculoskeletal Research, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  28. 28 Université Clermont Auvergne, CHU Clermont-Ferrand, Service de Médecine Interne, Hôpital Gabriel Montpied, INSERM U1071, Clermont-Ferrand, France
  29. 29 Hospital Garcia de Orta EPE, Almada, Setúbal, Portugal
  30. 30 University of Pisa and Azienda Ospedaliero Universitaria Pisana, Pisa, Italy
  31. 31 Dipartimento di Reumatologia e Scienze Mediche, ASST Gaetano Pini-CTO, Milan, Italy
  32. 32 Department of Rheumatology, CHU Clermont-Ferrand, Hopital Gabriel Montpied, Clermont-Ferrand, France
  33. 33 Service de Rhumatologie, Hôpital Robert Schuman, Metz, France
  34. 34 Department of Rheumatology, Princess Grace Hospital, Monaco
  35. 35 University Hospital Saint-Luc, Brussels, Belgium
  36. 36 Department of Rheumatology, St. James’s Hospital, Dublin, Ireland
  37. 37 Service de Médecine Interne, Hôpital Bichat-Claude Bernard, Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Paris, Université de Paris, Paris, France
  38. 38 Department of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology, University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands
  39. 39 Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
  40. 40 Department of Rheumatology, Université Paris-Saclay, Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, Hôpital Bicêtre, INSERM UMR1184, Le Kremlin Bicêtre, Paris, France
  1. Correspondence to Dr Pedro M Machado, Centre for Rheumatology, University College London, London, UK; p.machado{at}ucl.ac.uk

Abstract

Objectives To describe the safety of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in people with inflammatory/autoimmune rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease (I-RMD).

Methods Physician-reported registry of I-RMD and non-inflammatory RMD (NI-RMDs) patients vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2. From 5 February 2021 to 27 July 2021, we collected data on demographics, vaccination, RMD diagnosis, disease activity, immunomodulatory/immunosuppressive treatments, flares, adverse events (AEs) and SARS-CoV-2 breakthrough infections. Data were analysed descriptively.

Results The study included 5121 participants from 30 countries, 90% with I-RMDs (n=4604, 68% female, mean age 60.5 years) and 10% with NI-RMDs (n=517, 77% female, mean age 71.4). Inflammatory joint diseases (58%), connective tissue diseases (18%) and vasculitis (12%) were the most frequent diagnostic groups; 54% received conventional synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), 42% biological DMARDs and 35% immunosuppressants. Most patients received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (70%), 17% AstraZeneca/Oxford and 8% Moderna. In fully vaccinated cases, breakthrough infections were reported in 0.7% of I-RMD patients and 1.1% of NI-RMD patients. I-RMD flares were reported in 4.4% of cases (0.6% severe), 1.5% resulting in medication changes. AEs were reported in 37% of cases (37% I-RMD, 40% NI-RMD), serious AEs in 0.5% (0.4% I-RMD, 1.9% NI-RMD).

Conclusion The safety profiles of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in patients with I-RMD was reassuring and comparable with patients with NI-RMDs. The majority of patients tolerated their vaccination well with rare reports of I-RMD flare and very rare reports of serious AEs. These findings should provide reassurance to rheumatologists and vaccine recipients and promote confidence in SARS-CoV-2 vaccine safety in I-RMD patients.

  • COVID-19
  • vaccination
  • autoimmune diseases
  • antirheumatic agents
  • epidemiology

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request. Applications to access the data should be made to the European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR).

This article is made freely available for personal use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

https://bmj.com/coronavirus/usage

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Key messages

What is already known about this subject?

  • People with inflammatory/autoimmune rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (I-RMDs) were excluded from SARS-CoV-2 vaccine clinical development programmes; therefore, concerns regarding the safety and effectiveness of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in this population still exist.

  • Previous studies in people with I-RMDs were small albeit reassuring in terms of the incidence of I-RMD flares and adverse events.

Key messages

What does this study add?

  • In this large international registry of patients with I-RMDs vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the overwhelming majority of patients tolerated their vaccination well with rare reports of I-RMD flare (4.4%, 0.6% severe, 1.5% requiring medication changes) and very rare reports of serious adverse events (AEs) (0.4%) and breakthrough infections, namely in fully vaccinated patients (0.7%).

  • The AE profile was similar to the one observed in patients with non-inflammatory RMDs (and the general population). They were mainly non-serious transient local and systemic reactions.

How might this impact on clinical practice or future developments?

  • These findings will support discussions with patients regarding the safety profile and benefit/risk ratio of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 and the development of recommendations by competent organisations.

  • These findings should provide reassurance to rheumatologists, other health professionals and vaccine recipients and promote confidence in SARS-CoV-2 vaccine safety in I-RMD patients.

Introduction

The WHO declared the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and a pandemic on 11 March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life and an unprecedented challenge to public health and healthcare systems worldwide.1

Since the publication of the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on 11 January 2020, the development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 accelerated at an extraordinary pace; in December 2020, two vaccines using mRNA technology (Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) and one vaccine using a non-replicating adenoviral vector expressing the spike protein (AstraZeneca/Oxford) were authorised for use by several national and international drug regulatory bodies.1 According to the WHO, on 17 August 2021, there were 112 candidate vaccines in human clinical trial phases and 183 candidates in preclinical development worldwide.2

Vaccines are a key pillar of public health and the WHO estimates that vaccine immunisation currently prevents 4–5 million deaths every year.3 Many more lives are expected to be saved with immunisation against SARS-CoV-2, which has been shown to be highly effective.4–8 However, vaccination also raises questions, especially for patients with inflammatory/autoimmune rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (I-RMDs) and/or treated with drugs that may influence the functional competence of their immune system.

Patients with immune-mediated inflammatory diseases (including I-RMDs) were excluded from SARS-CoV-2 vaccine clinical development programmes; therefore, questions regarding the safety, effectiveness and potential measures that may increase the safety and effectiveness of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 are unanswered.9 10 Lack of data has led to some contradictory advice from rheumatology organisations and healthcare professionals regarding some of these vaccination aspects.11 12 Further data will contribute to more informed decisions by patients and healthcare professionals and more robust and homogeneous evidence-based recommendations from relevant organisations. Our aim was therefore to describe the safety of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in people with I-RMDs.

Of note, adverse events reported in these manuscript should be considered adverse events following immunisation (AEFI), as defined by the WHO that is, ‘any untoward medical occurrence which follows immunization and which does not necessarily have a causal relationship with the usage of the vaccine’. Investigating causality of AEFIs, particularly those that are more serious, is a much more challenging and complex process that should take the consistence, strength, specificity, temporal relation and biological plausibility of the association into account.

Methods

Data source

The European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR) Coronavirus Vaccine (COVAX) physician-reported registry was launched on 5 February 2021. Data are entered voluntarily by rheumatologists or other members of the clinical rheumatology team; patients are eligible for inclusion if they have a pre-existing I-RMD or non-inflammatory rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease (NI-RMD) and have received one or more doses of any vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. Data are entered directly into an online data entry system or transferred from national registries (for Portugal). Patients with NI-RMDs are included as a control group.

Providers were asked to report as many cases as possible of patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease (RMDs) vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, with or without adverse events. Cases could be collected in outpatient, day care or inpatient settings, with the number of reported cases per session varying depending on feasibility. When reporting only a subset of patients from, for example, a full clinic list, providers were asked to select cases randomly, in order to avoid selection bias. Furthermore, the time from vaccination to the reporting of the case/outcome was allowed to vary between individuals, and providers were also asked not to report adverse events that, in the opinion of the reporter, were definitely not related with the vaccine administration (eg, death as a consequence of road traffic accident).

Data are collected using REDCap, a secure web application for building and managing online surveys and databases.13 14 The survey (available at https://www.eular.org/eular_covax_registry.cfm) was developed by a EULAR COVID-19 Task Force of representatives of its constituents, patients and health professionals in rheumatology and rheumatologists. Input and support was also received from the European Reference Network (ERN) on Rare and Complex Connective Tissue and Musculoskeletal Diseases (ERN ReCONNET) and the European Reference Network on Rare Immunodeficiency, Autoinflammatory and Autoimmune Diseases Network (ERN RITA), two virtual networks involving healthcare providers across Europe, part of the EU-supported ERN initiative.

Given the registry collects anonymous non-interventional data, the UK Health Research Authority (HRA) does not class the registry as a research study (in line with the HRA decision tool), and patient consent is not required. By submitting cases, providers accept the privacy notice available on the data collection website.

Data collected

The following information is collected: patients’ age (years), sex at birth, country of residence, COVID-19 vaccine received, number of doses and dates, diagnosis of COVID-19 before or after vaccination, primary (and secondary) RMD diagnoses, physician global assessment of disease activity (only applicable to I-RMDs and categorised as remission/inactive disease, low, moderate or severe/high disease activity), exposure to immunomodulatory/immunosuppressive treatments at the time of vaccination,9 I-RMD flare following vaccination and other probably/possibly vaccine-related adverse events (AEs), including AEs of special interest. SARS-CoV-2 infections stratified by vaccination status were defined as per US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definitions15: (1) infection in ‘partially vaccinated’ cases if occurring ≥14 days after dose one to <14 days after dose two, and (2) infection in ‘fully vaccinated’ cases if occurring 14 days after dose two or after a single-dose vaccine.

Immunomodulatory/immunosuppressive treatments

Exposure to the following immunomodulatory/immunosuppressive treatments16 at the time of COVID-19 vaccination is collected:

  1. Conventional synthetic (cs) disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), namely antimalarials (hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine), leflunomide, methotrexate and sulfasalazine.

  2. Biological (b) DMARDs, namely abatacept, belimumab, rituximab, interleukin (IL)-1 inhibitors (including anakinra, canakinumab and rilonacept), IL-6 inhibitors (including tocilizumab, sarilumab), IL-12/23 inhibitors (ustekinumab), IL-23 inhibitors (including guselkumab, risankizumab and tildrakizumab), IL-17 inhibitors (including secukinumab, ixekizumab and brodalumab) and tumour necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors (including adalimumab, certolizumab, etanercept, golimumab, infliximab and biosimilars).

  3. Targeted synthetic (ts) DMARDs, namely apremilast and JAK inhibitors (including tofacitinib, baricitinib and upadacitinib).

  4. Immunosuppressants: glucocorticoids (GCs), azathioprine/6-mercaptopurine, cyclophosphamide, ciclosporin, mycophenolate mofetil and tacrolimus.

  5. Intravenous immunoglobulin.

For each medication, information about changes in the original therapeutic regimen before or after COVID-19 vaccination (including stopping/holding/reducing the medication) is also collected.

Flares

For patients with I-RMDs, information about flares is collected, namely: (1) type of flare (fever, weight loss, increase in fatigue, increase in dryness, enlarged lymph nodes, arthralgia, arthritis flare, cutaneous, pulmonary, renal, neurological, muscular, cardiac, gastrointestinal or haematological flare or other type of flare); (2) severity of flare (mild/minor, moderate, severe/major without hospitalisation and severe/major with hospitalisation); (3) information about changes in medication (including dosage increase) due to the flare; and (4) period of time between vaccination and the flare.

Adverse events

Two main types of AEs are collected:

  1. Early AEs within 7 days from vaccination (reactogenicity): pain, redness or swelling at the site of injection, generalised muscle or joint pain, headache, fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhoea.

  2. AEs of special interest: collected based on organ/system affected, with the possibility to add free-text descriptors.

Information about the period of time between vaccination and the AE, degree of confidence in the relationship between the AE and the COVID-19 vaccine, outcome (ongoing/continuing, recovered/resolved without sequelae, recovered/resolved with sequelae, death and unknown) and if the AE was serious or not is also collected.

Serious AEs (SAEs) are further categorised into six possible groups: resulting in an important medical event, resulting in hospitalisation or prolongation of existing hospitalisation (hospitalisation being defined as at least 24 hours in a hospital or an overnight stay), life-threatening event, resulting in persistent or significant disability/incapacity, resulting in death or resulting in congenital anomaly/birth defect.

Statistical analysis

Descriptive statistics, including means and SD, frequencies and proportions, are used to describe the data. Data are presented separately for patients with I-RMD and NI-RMD. Crystal arthropathies were included in the NI-RMD group as these patients are not usually treated with immunomodulatory/immunosuppressive drugs. Missing data were treated as missing.

Results

Demographics

Between 5 February 2021 and 27 July 2021, 5121 cases were submitted to the EULAR COVAX registry (table 1). Seventy per cent of these cases were female, the mean age was 61.6 (SD 15.2), and over half of the cases were over the age of 60 years (56%). Cases were submitted from 30 countries, the majority from France (40%), Italy (16%) and Portugal (14%). Providers were from diverse rheumatology practices, including academic and non-academic centres, and a minority of private practices. The I-RMD group made up 90% of all cases (n=4604), with a mean age of 60.5 (SD 15.1) and 68% of this group were female. The NI-RMD group (10%, n=517) had a higher percentage of female cases (77%) and a higher mean age (71.4, SD 12.5), with 80% of the group having an age over 60 years. Mean time between first vaccine dose and case reporting was 66 days (SD 40), 66 days (SD 40) in the I-RMD group and 64 days (SD 40) in the NI-RMD group.

Table 1

Patient demographics

RMD data

Over half of the cohort had an inflammatory joint disease as their primary RMD diagnosis (58%), 18% had a connective tissue disease, 12% vasculitis and 2% another I-RMD (table 2). The most common I-RMDs were rheumatoid arthritis (33%), axial spondyloarthritis (11%) and psoriatic arthritis (10%). Osteoarthritis (5%) and osteoporosis (2%) were the most frequent NI-RMDs.

Table 2

Rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease information

The majority of the I-RMD group had minimal (41%) or low (28%) disease activity, although these data were missing in 17% of cases.

Fifty-four per cent of the I-RMD group received csDMARDs, 42% bDMARDs and 35% immunosuppressants. The most common individual medications were methotrexate (MTX; 34%), GCs (30%) and TNF-inhibitors (25%). Overall, there were few medication changes either before or after vaccination; however, changes were more prevalent in some drugs than others. Seven per cent of patients taking rituximab and IL-6 inhibitors held their medication before vaccination, 6% of TNF-inhibitor patients held the drug prior to vaccination and 6% and 4% of MTX cases held the medication before and after vaccination, respectively (table 2).

Vaccine information

Most patients received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (70%), 17% had the AstraZeneca/Oxford and 8% the Moderna vaccine (table 3). One quarter of cases had one vaccine dose, whereas almost three quarters (74%) had two and 1% had three. Mean time between the first and second dose of the vaccine (if applicable) was 34 days (SD 62), 33 days (SD 18) in the I-RMD group and 43 days (SD 189) in the NI-RMD group. Mean time between the first and second vaccine doses in the Pfizer group was 28 days (SD 12), 30 days (SD 8) in the Moderna group and 78 days (SD 14) in the AstraZeneca/Oxford group.

Table 3

COVID-19 vaccines, SARS-CoV-2 infections after vaccination, flares and adverse events in patients with inflammatory and non-inflammatory RMDs

The split of vaccine types, doses and postvaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection was similar between the I-RMD and NI-RMD groups (table 3), although 12 I-RMD cases received a combination of vaccines (Pfizer/BioNTech and either AstraZeneca/Oxford or CoronaVac/Sinovac).

SARS-CoV-2 infection after vaccination occurred in 46 cases (0.9%), with 42 cases occurring in the I-RMD (0.9%) and 4 cases occurring in the NI-RMD group (0.8%); however, only 21 cases (0.7%) occurred in fully vaccinated patients (n=18, 0.7%; n=3, 1.1%; in the I-RMD and NI-RMD group, respectively).

When stratified by vaccine type, the percentage of cases with postvaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection was equal across vaccine types in the I-RMD group (online supplemental table 1) but only reported following the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or other vaccine types in the NI-RMD group (online supplemental table 2), though this is explained by the low number of cases vaccinated with Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna in the NI-RMD group.

Flares

Flare following vaccination was reported in 4.4% (n=204) of I-RMD cases, though these data were missing in 15% of cases. Mean time between the most recent vaccine dose (prior to flare) and the flare was 6 days (SD 8). The most common flares were arthritis flare, polyarthralgia and increase in fatigue (2.1%, 1.8%, and 0.7% of the I-RMD cohort, respectively). Most flares were mild (1.5%) or moderate (2.1%), with 29 cases (0.6%) being severe and 68 cases (1.5%) having started a new medication or increased existing medication dosage as a result of the flare (table 3).

The percentage of cases reporting a flare, flare severity and medication changes due to the flare were consistent among different vaccines (online supplemental table 1). The percentage of flares was slightly higher in patients with moderate/high disease activity (5.2%) compared with patients in remission/low disease disease activity (4.8%), with similar results observed for severe flares (1.0% vs 0.7%), though disease activity information was missing in 17% of cases. These findings raise the possibility of an association between higher disease activity and higher flare rate.

When stratified by I-RMD group (table 4), patients with inflammatory joint diseases experienced a slightly higher percentage of flares compared with the connective tissue disease and vasculitis groups (5.1% vs 3.1% vs 3.2%, respectively). Flare prevalence was similar across most medication groups in I-RMD cases (table 5), although patients on monotherapy or combination therapies of TNF-inhibitors (5.5%), other biologicals (5.3%), other csDMARDs (excluding methotrexate) (4.7%) and tsDMARDs (4.6%) reported a slightly higher percentage of flares than other medication groups (2.7%–3.6%). The lower flare rate was observed for rituximab and immunosuppressants (both 2.7%).

Table 4

Flares and AEs stratified by inflammatory RMD disease group

Table 5

Flares and adverse events in patients with inflammatory RMDs, stratified by medication

Adverse events

There were possible/probable vaccine-related AEs in 37% of all cases, 37% in the I-RMD group and 40% in the NI-RMD group. The majority were early AEs, mostly pain at injection site (19%), fatigue (12%), generalised muscle pain (7%) and fever (7%). Overall, the pattern and proportion of early AEs was similar between I-RMD and NI-RMD cases (table 3).

When I-RMD cases were stratified by vaccine type (online supplemental table 1), the percentage of AEs was similar across the group (32%–37%), except for Moderna, where a slightly higher percentage was observed (42%). The percentages of most individual types of early AEs were also similar across vaccines; however, a larger proportion of Moderna (26%) and a lower proportion of AstraZeneca/Oxford cases (12%) had pain at the injection site, and higher percentages of AstraZeneca/Oxford (12%) and Moderna (11%) cases had fever following vaccination (in comparison with 6% with other vaccines).

Forty-one per cent of connective tissue disease cases reported AEs, compared with 37% of inflammatory joint disease and 30% of vasculitis cases (table 4). When I-RMD cases were stratified by medication group (table 5), all groups reported similar AE percentages, expect for patients on other csDMARDs (42% vs 33%–35%).

In the NI-RMD group (online supplemental table 2), the prevalence of AEs was more variable across vaccine types, with the most salient difference between vaccines being the lower percentages of Pfizer/BioNTech (13%) and AstraZeneca/Oxford (10%) cases that experienced pain at injection site compared with 50% of Moderna vaccinated cases.

There were 149 AEs of special interest (2.9% of all patients), 112 (2.4%) in the I-RMD group and 37 (7.2%) in the NI-RMD group, and most of the AEs resolved/recovered without sequelae (100 cases, 2.0% of all patients; n=75, 1.6% in the I-RMD group; n=25, 4.8% in the NI-RMD group). Both in the I-RMD and NI-RMD group, a larger diversity of AEs of special interest were seen following vaccination with Pfizer/BioNTech, reflecting the higher number of cases receiving this vaccine. However, there were no salient differences between vaccines or between patients with I-RMD and NI-RMD (table 6). Mean time between the most recent vaccine dose (prior to AE of special interest) and the AE of special interest was 7 days (SD 17), 7 days (SD 15) in the I-RMD group and 8 days (SD 21) in the NI-RMD group.

Table 6

Adverse events of special interest possibly/probably related to COVID-19 vaccination among patient with inflammatory RMDs

SAEs were rare (n=27, 0.5% of all patients) and more prevalent in the NI-RMD group (n=10, 1.9%) than in the I-RMD group (n=17, 0.4%). Among these 27 SAEs, three were life threatening, all occurring in Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine recipients in the I-RMD group. These were two cases of ‘cardiac – coronary artery disease’ events and one ‘gastrointestinal – liver injury’ event; all three events recovered/resolved, though one cardiac event and the ‘gastrointestinal – liver injury’ event recovered/resolved with sequelae (table 6).

There were six instances of SAEs resulting in hospitalisation in the I-RMD group, all in Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine recipients. One of these was a ‘haematologic – peripheral deep vein thrombosis’ event, one was a ‘haematologic – stroke’ event, one was an ‘immunological - skin or mucosal’ event (erythema nodosum), two were ‘viral infection – herpes zoster/shingles’ events and finally one ‘other - neck swelling event’ (table 6).

Eight SAEs classified as serious important medical events were seen in the I-RMD group, occurring in Pfizer/BioNTech (n=7) and AstraZeneca/Oxford (n=1) vaccine recipients. There were three ‘immunological - skin or mucosal’ events (gingivitis, pharyngitis and bullous leg rash), one ‘cardiac - arterial hypertension’, one ‘malaise’, one ‘neurological – hemiparesis’, one ‘other – possible cardiac’ event (dyspnoea) and one ‘viral infection – herpes zoster/shingles’ event (table 7).

Table 7

Adverse events of special interest possibly/probably related to COVID-19 vaccination among patient with non-inflammatory RMDs

There were two SAEs resulting in hospitalisation in the NI-RMD group: one an ‘immunological – vasculitides’ event (giant cell arteritis), in a Moderna vaccine recipient, and one other possible cardiac event (dyspnoea), in a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine recipient. Eight events were classified as important medical events: one ‘arterial hypertension’ event, two ‘immunological – arthritis’ events, a ‘gastrointestinal – liver injury’ event, one ‘immunological – vasculitides’ event (polymyalgia rheumatica-like syndrome), one ‘neurological – syncope’, one ‘neurological – vertigo’ and one ‘tendons and joints’ event (frozen shoulder) (table 7).

SAEs resulting in death, persistent or significant disability/incapacity or congenital anomaly/birth defect were neither reported in the I-RMD group nor in the NI-RMD group.

Of note, we are not aware of any cases of vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia in this cohort, an exceedingly rare complication described in the general population with the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines. One case of isolated thrombocytopenia after the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine was reported in a young (<30 years old) female patient with mixed connective tissue disease; however, this was a transient laboratory change without clinical repercussion. Regarding myocarditis and pericarditis, a rare complication associated with mRNA vaccines, this was reported after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in a young (<30 years old) female patient with systemic lupus erythematosus, and she recovered without sequelae from this event.

Discussion

We created the largest international case series of people with I-RMDs vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 and report that the safety profile of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in this population was reassuring. The overwhelming majority of patients tolerated their vaccination well with rare reports of I-RMD flare (4.4%, 0.6% severe) and very rare reports of SAEs (0.4%). Changes in medication due to flare were also rare (1.5% of I-RMD patients). Most AEs were the same and in similar proportion as observed in patients with NI-RMDs (and the general population); they were non-serious and involved transient local and systemic symptoms.

Regarding flares, the data suggest that the risk of I-RMD flare following vaccination is low and not more strongly associated with any particular type of vaccine, with observed percentages being compatible with the natural history of the disease rather than necessarily caused by vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.17

Regarding early AEs (reactogenicity), both the profile and frequency of AEs were similar between I-RMD and NI-RMD cases. The frequency and type of early AEs was also similar between vaccines, both for the I-RMD and NI-RMD groups, with the possible exception of a slightly higher proportion of pain at the injection site with the Moderna vaccine (both in the I-RMD and NI-RMD group). Both the flare and AE data are in line with previous smaller studies in patients with I-RMDs (13 to 2860 patients, with the largest cohort being patient reported rather than physician reported).18–40

Regarding AEs of special interest, they were infrequent and their proportion tended to be smaller in the I-RMD group compared with the NI-RMD group and in line with rates reported in trials in the general population. There was significant diversity in terms of AEs of special interest observed both in I-RMD and NI-RMD cases, particularly in I-RMD cases, reflecting the higher number of cases in this subgroup of patients; however, no salient differences between the I-RMD and NI-RMD groups were found, and no clustering of AEs of special interest was observed.

While the primary aim of our study was to collect safety data among I-RMD patients receiving vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, we also collected data regarding breakthrough infections and found that these occurred very infrequently, particularly in fully vaccinated patients (0.7% and 1.1% of cases in the I-RMD and NI-RMD group, respectively). A more detailed report describing cases of breakthrough infections in patients with I-RMDs from the EULAR COVAX and COVID-19 registries, including details about vaccines administered, exposure to anti-rheumatic medications and outcome of breakthrough infections, has previously been published.40

We found that temporary discontinuation of antirheumatic medications was infrequent. This attitude towards antirheumatic medications might reflect the fact that this is largely a European registry. Contrary to the American College of Rheumatology, who recommended holding methotrexate, JAK inhibitors, abatacept, mycophenolate mofetil and rituximab in certain patients with controlled disease,12 EULAR did not advise temporarily stopping or adjusting the timing of any of these medications (with the exception of rituximab) relative to when the vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is administered.11 Future studies are needed to determine if changes in certain antirheumatic medication regimens might increase the effectiveness of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 while balancing the risk of disease flare (and the need for additional treatment of the flare, such as GCs).

Strengths of this study include the rapid dissemination via European networks (EULAR, ERN ReCONNET and ERN RITA) that resulted in a large number of cases reported by rheumatologists, internists or associated healthcare professionals over a short period of time. However, our study has important limitations. The COVAX registry relies on voluntary case submission, leading to possible selection bias in the data, and concerns regarding the generalisability of the results. However, this could in principle have led to over-reporting of flares and AEs; therefore the low rate of flares/AEs consistent with other publications is reassuring. Moreover, the underlying risk of flare also differs among RMDs, which may influence the overall flare rate and differences between conditions. Furthermore, dissemination was more effectively achieved in certain European countries (eg, France, Italy and Portugal), and reporting was also influenced by differences in vaccine availability and access across European countries, which has resulted in a significantly higher proportion of cases vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, limiting comparisons between vaccines. Time between vaccination and case reporting is also variable and sometimes relatively short, limiting data interpretation and not allowing us to draw any conclusions regarding the long-term safety profile of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Moreover, a control group of patients with I-RMDs is not available, and the sample size of patients with NI-RMDs is substantially smaller. For some signs/symptoms, it can be difficult to determine if the event should be considered an I-RMD flare or simply a transient side effect of the vaccine (eg, polyarthralgia); in our study, this decision was left to the reporting physician, which can be considered a study limitation. Similarly, systemic flares were also based on the report of the physician without collection of more detailed evidence of the flare (eg, results of investigations). Finally, the information regarding SARS-CoV-2 infection after vaccination is based on the report of physicians/healthcare providers, and no information is provided concerning the presence or the titre of postvaccine antibodies. Importantly, no causal conclusions regarding vaccination and the development of flares/AEs can firmly be drawn from this dataset.

In conclusion, our findings should provide reassurance to rheumatologists, other health professionals and vaccine recipients and and promote confidence in SARS-CoV-2 vaccine safety in people with I-RMDs. The rate of severe flares was very low (0.6%). Likewise, the rate of SAEs in I-RMDs was 0.4%, comparable and even lower than in patients with NI-RMDs (1.1%), suggesting that the tolerance to the vaccine was not different between the groups. Interestingly, in clinical trials of mRNA, inactivated and non-replicating vector vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in the general population, the pooled rates of SAEs were very similar to our study, ranging from 0.4% to 0.6% in the vaccine group, and from 0.5% to 0.6% in the control group,41 suggesting that these SAEs are not necessarily causally related to the vaccine and might be coincidental observations. However, although the mean time between first vaccine dose and case reporting of 66 days in our report is not very different from the follow-up period in some of the vaccination trials, this is an indirect comparison that should be interpreted with caution, because the follow-up period in our study was allowed to vary, and there are also important differences between follow-up periods among vaccination trials (that typically do not go beyond 6 months). Future studies should address the effectiveness and safety of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in patients with I-RMDs and/or patients taking immunosuppressive/immunomodulatory drugs, both in controlled and general surveillance settings.

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request. Applications to access the data should be made to the European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR).

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication

Ethics approval

This study involves human participants but given that the Registry collects anonymous non-interventional data, the UK Health Research Authority (HRA) does not class the Registry as a research study (in line with the HRA decision tool) and patient consent is not required.

Acknowledgments

We wish to thank all healthcare providers who entered data into the registry.

References

Supplementary materials

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Footnotes

  • Handling editor Josef S Smolen

  • Twitter @pedrommcmachado, @saskiaamber, @carmona_loreto

  • Collaborators In addition to the authors listed above, the following colleagues also contributed to the EULAR COVAX Registry by submitting at least 10 cases each: Viviane Queyrel, Julien Henry, Raphaele Seror, Eric Toussirot, Emoke Stenova, Azeddine Dellal, Vanda Mlynarikova, Romain Forestier, François Lamer, Hélène Maillard, Amélie Leurs, Thierry Zenone, Daniel Wendling, Amélie Florent, Theodoros Dimitroulas, Simona Rednic, Bernard Combe, Yves Piette, Jozef Odnoga, Giovanna Cuomo, Ioannis Raftakis, Jean-Camille Meric, Sylvain Lanot, Marion Mirabel, Mikhail Protopopov, Katalin Törõcsik, John Brockbank, Marion Jacob, Pascal Coquerelle, Christophe Richez, Elisabeth Gervais, Séverine Verlinden, Antoine Froissart, Fabienne Roux, Marion Couderc, Renaud Desbarbieux, Alojzija Hocevar, Pierre-Yves Jeandel, Sophie Rivière, Luciana Popa, Fabienne Coury, Inita Bulina, Jean-Jacques Dubost, Lionel Spielmann, Marie-Hélène Guyot, Nicolas Deseyne, Isabelle Amigues, Dagmar Mičeková, Loraine Gauzere, Gaëlle Viadere, Natalia de la Torre-Rubio, Victor Strotz.

  • Contributors PMM is responsible for the overall content as the guarantor, and accepts full responsibility for the work and/or the conduct of the study, had access to the data, and controlled the decision to publish. PMM and SL-T had access to the study data, developed the figures and tables, wrote the first draft of the manuscript and vouch for the data and analyses. PMM, KLH, LG, AR, BR, CD, EH, EV, ES, GRB, GKY, JAG-P, JZ, LF, LK-F, MCU, MM, MCo, MS, NR, OB, PD, RC, TG and XM contributed to data collection and interpretation of the data. PMM, SL-T, AS, EFM, KLH, LG, LC, EH, MM, GRB, JWJB, IBM and XM contributed to study design and questionnaire development. PMM directed the work and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication. All authors contributed intellectual content during the drafting and revision of the work and approved the final version to be published.

  • Competing interests PMM has received consulting/speaker’s fees from Abbvie, BMS, Celgene, Eli Lilly, Galapagos, Janssen, MSD, Novartis, Orphazyme, Pfizer, Roche and UCB, all unrelated to this manuscript, and is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), University College London Hospitals (UCLH), Biomedical Research Centre. SL-T does not report conflicts of interest. AS has received personal fees from lectures for AbbVie, MSD, Lilly, Roche, BMS and Pfizer. EFM has received personal consultant fees from Boehringer Ingelheim Portugal, Lda; LPCDR received support for specific activities: grants from Abbvie, Novartis, Lilly Portugal, Amgen Biofarmacêutica, Grünenthal S.A., MSD, Medac and from A. Menarini Portugal - Farmacêutica, S.A.; grants and non-financial support from Pfizer, and non-financial support from Grünenthal GmbH, outside the submitted work. KLH has received non-personal speaker’s fees from Abbvie and grant income from BMS, UCB and Pfizer, all unrelated to this manuscript, and is supported by the NIHR Manchester Biomedical Research Centre. LG has received personal consultant fees from AbbVie, Amgen, BMS, Galapagos, Gilead, Janssen, Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer, Samsung Bioepis, Sanofi-Aventis and UCB, and grants from Amgen, Galapagos, Lilly, Pfizer, Sandoz and Sanofi, all unrelated to this manuscript. LC has not received any fees or personal grants from any laboratory, but her institute works by contract for laboratories among other institutions, such as Abbvie Spain, Eisai, Gebro Pharma, Merck Sharp & Dohme España, S.A., Novartis Farmaceutica, Pfizer, Roche Farma, Sanofi Aventis, Astellas Pharma, Actelion Pharmaceuticals España, Grünenthal GmbH and UCB Pharma. AR has received research grants and consultant fees from Amgen and Pfizer, all unrelated to this manuscript. BR does not report conflicts of interest. CD does not report conflicts of interest. EH does not report conflicts of interest. EV reports personal consultant fees from Theramex, unrelated to this manuscript. ES does not report conflicts of interest. G-RRB reports personal consultant fees from AbbVie, Amgen, BMS, Galapagos, Gilead, Janssen, Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, UCB, all unrelated to this manuscript. GKY does not report conflicts of interest. JAG-P reports speaker fees from Abbvie, Astra-Zeneca, BMS, Galapagos, GSK, Janssen, Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis and Roche, all unrelated to this manuscript. JZ reports speaker fees from Abbvie, Novartis, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, all unrelated to this manuscript. LK-F does not report conflicts of interest. LT does not report conflicts of interest. MCu does not report conflicts of interest. MM does not report conflicts of interest. MCo does not report conflicts of interest. MS does not report conflicts of interest. NR does not report conflicts of interest. OB does not report conflicts of interest. PD does not report conflicts of interest. RC reports speaker’s fees from Janssen, Roche, Sanofi, Abbvie, all unrelated to this work. TG does not report conflicts of interest. JWJB does not report conflicts of interest. IM does not report conflicts of interest. XM reports personal consultant fees from BMS, Galapagos, Gilead, Janssen, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, UCB and grant from Ose, all unrelated to this manuscript.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.

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