A new role for anakinra

Taking anakinra, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, may prevent people infected with COVID-19 from developing severe respiratory failure and dying.
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Anakinra is administered by injecting patients using a syringe. Image credit: ZaldyImg (CC BY 2.0)

People infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can develop severe respiratory failure and require a ventilator to keep breathing, but this does not happen to every infected individual. Measuring a blood protein called suPAR (soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor) may help identify patients at the greatest risk of developing severe respiratory failure and requiring a ventilator. Previous investigations have suggested that measuring suPAR can identify pneumonia patients at highest risk for developing respiratory failure. The protein can be measured by taking a blood sample, and its levels provide a snapshot of how the body’s immune system is reacting to infection, and of how it may respond to treatment.

Anakinra is a drug that forms part of a class of medications called interleukin antagonists. It is commonly prescribed alone or in combination with other medications to reduce pain and swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Kyriazopoulou et al. investigated whether treating COVID-19 patients who had developed pneumonia with anakinra could prevent the use of a ventilator and lower the risk of death.

The findings show that treating COVID-19 patients with an injection of 100 milligrams of anakinra for ten days may be an effective approach because the drug combats inflammation. Kyriazopoulou et al. examined various markers of the immune response and discovered that anakinra was able to improve immune function, protecting a significant number of patients from going on a ventilator. The drug was also found to be safe and cause no significant adverse side effects.

Administering anakinra decreased of the risk of progression into severe respiratory failure by 70%, and reduced death rates significantly. These results suggest that it may be beneficial to use suPAR as an early biomarker for identifying those individuals at highest risk for severe respiratory failure, and then treat them with anakinra. While the findings are promising, they must be validated in larger studies.