A 39-year-old woman with systemic lupus erythematosus treated with anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody rituximab was admitted to our hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia. Despite receiving dexamethasone, she developed hypoxaemia and persistent lung opacities. As bronchoalveolar lavage was suggestive of cryptogenic organising pneumonia, high-dose corticosteroid was administered, and she received antimicrobial therapy for opportunistic infections without improvement. Reverse transcription PCR was repeatedly positive for SARS-CoV-2, and virus replication was confirmed in cell cultures. As no anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies were detected more than 100 days after symptom onset, she was treated with convalescent plasma with fast clinical improvement, returning home days later. Our case shows that persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection in an immunocompromised patient may be overturned with the appropriate treatment.
- respiratory system
- biological agents
- systemic lupus erythematosus
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Anti-CD20 monoclonal antibodies represent the cornerstone treatment of both B-cell malignancies and some autoimmune diseases.1 However, in the current COVID-19 pandemic, patients treated with rituximab are at increased risk of developing severe COVID-19,2 and a significant proportion of these patients will require hospitalisation when infected with SARS-CoV-2.3 Several reports describe protracted SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia in this group of patients.4–11 Although remdesivir might have a suppressive antiviral effect against SARS-CoV-2, it did not show a curative effect.4 Choi et al described the case of a patient with antiphospholipid syndrome treated with rituximab who, despite having completed three courses of remdesivir, intravenous immunoglobulin and later a SARS-CoV-2 antibody cocktail, still developed prolonged SARS-CoV-2 infection, with a fatal outcome.5 Phylogenetic analysis showed accelerated viral evolution with a high number of mutations, as in other immunocompromised patients with protracted COVID-19 treated with remdesivir.6 11 A growing number of case reports of patients with profound B-cell lymphopenia and protracted COVID-19 showed a clear benefit of convalescent plasma therapy for this specific group of immunocompromised patients.6–10 12
A 39-year-old woman presented with myalgia, sore throat, anosmia and on the following weeks she developed fever, headache, diarrhoea, and ultimately, cough and dyspnoea. She had a personal history of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) with articular and haematological manifestations, well controlled with hydroxychloroquine and leflunomide daily in combination with rituximab every 6 months, which had been administered 1 month before symptom onset.
As symptoms worsened, 19 days after symptom onset, she was admitted to the hospital. On examination, she was pale and normotensive with a blood pressure of 95/65 mm Hg and a heart rate of 105 beats/min, and she had tachypnoea with a respiratory rate of 20 breaths/min. She had frequent dry cough, and peripheric oxygen saturation of 96% at room air. On pulmonary auscultation, vesicular murmur was diminished in the left lower two-thirds, with the presence of crackles.
Our patient was diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, which rapidly progressed to acute respiratory failure with PaO2:FiO2 ratio of <300 (figure 1A). Blood testing showed raised levels of C reactive protein, lactate dehydrogenase, ferritin and d-dimer, as well as anaemia and a low lymphocyte count (figure 1B,C). Chest CT scan revealed bilateral lung ground-glass opacities, initially with 25% of lung involvement (figure 2) but no evidence of pulmonary embolism on CT angiography. She started on dexamethasone 6 mg (figure 1D) and supplemental oxygen but was not a candidate for remdesivir because symptoms had started 19 days before. She also started prophylaxis for Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia with co-trimoxazole. However, as fever persisted and serial CT imaging showed persistent ground-glass opacities and infiltrates (figure 2), empiric piperacillin/tazobactam was started to treat a presumed nosocomial pneumonia. On day 36, bronchial fibroscopy was performed and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) revealed CD8+ lymphocytosis and foamy macrophages, suggesting cryptogenic organising pneumonia. Additionally, herpes simplex virus was detected on a second BAL, so our patient was treated with acyclovir (figure 1D). Corticosteroid was initially tapered, but fever recurred and new interstitial infiltrates and consolidating areas appeared (figure 2). Pseudomonas aeruginosa was isolated in sputum on day 84, so imipenem plus ceftazidime/avibactam was administered, and prednisolone was adjusted to 1 mg/kg/day. In the following weeks, tachypnoea and hypoxaemia worsened, and there was an increasing intolerance after minimal physical exertion accompanied by oxygen desaturation to <90% with PaO2:FiO2 ratios reaching the minimum value of 143, high-flow nasal cannula and nocturnal non-invasive ventilation were required (figure 1A), justifying admission to our intermediate care unit.
SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR was persistently positive on repeated nasopharyngeal swabs, and on day 94, we confirmed virus replication in cell culture assay. The patient had low plasma gamma-globulin levels and peripheral blood analysis showed absence of B cells, more than 90 days after receiving the last dose of rituximab. Furthermore, no anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies were detected 100 days after symptom onset.
On day 102, she started a 4-day course of 200 mL/day intravenous high-titre convalescent plasma treatment with significant clinical improvement in the next days, with an increase of PaO2:FiO2 ratio to 425, sustained apyrexy, normalisation of C reactive protein levels, and decrease of supplemental oxygen and ventilatory support in the following week. On day 114, arterial blood gas test at room air showed PaO2=67 mm Hg at rest, and she was discharged from the hospital with home oxygen therapy on need and a prednisolone slow-tapering plan.
Outcome and follow-up
After hospital discharge, the patient engaged in a physical therapy plan with good results, being able to gain muscle strength, initially with the need of supplemental oxygen. At 2 months posthospital discharge, the patient was able to walk without home oxygen, being able to perform daily life activities. She recovered the sense of smell 2 months after discharge (and 5 months after COVID-19 diagnosis) but had parosmia since then. She started a ‘smell training’ plan, with some improvement.
Despite the rapidly growing information related to COVID-19 and the possibility of modification of guidance, European League Against Rheumatism and, more recently, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) published a series of recommendations regarding patients with rheumatological disease in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.13 14 Both societies agree that glucocorticoids should be used at the lowest dose possible to control rheumatic disease, and these drugs should not be abruptly stopped, regardless of exposure or infection status.14 Also, according to the ACR COVID-19 Clinical Guidance Task Force, in patients with rheumatic disease with documented or presumptive COVID-19 infection, regardless of COVID-19 severity, antimalarial therapies (hydroxychloroquine/chloroquine), sulfasalazine, metothrexate, leflunomide, immunosuppressants, non-interleukin-6 biologics and Janus kinase inhibitors should be stopped or held.14 In our patient, hydroxychloroquine, leflunomide and rituximab were stopped following SARS-CoV-2 infection diagnosis.
Rituximab induces a deep depletion of both humoral and B-cell response to several micro-organisms,15 and it may even induce life-threatening infections.16 Not only the antibody production is impaired (including postvaccination antibody production) but also the antigen presentation and cellular interactions with T cells may be altered, following rituximab administration.17 18 Consequently, this may delay the inflammatory response to SARS-CoV-2, often resulting in fatal outcomes if not treated.5 19 Results from the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance physician-reported registry found that in patients with rheumatic diseases, rituximab was associated with COVID-19-related death.20 Our patient never developed spontaneous seroconversion against SARS-CoV-2, possibly due to the absence of B lymphocytes.
A Cochrane review found limited evidence of the effectiveness and safety of convalescent plasma therapy for people hospitalised with COVID-19.21 Similar results were observed in patients with severe SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia treated with convalescent plasma, but only a minority of these patients (9 out of 333) were taking immunosuppressant drugs.22 Another randomised trial suggested that, in order to be effective, high-titre convalescent plasma against SARS-CoV-2 should be administered early in the course of illness, thus reducing the progression to severe COVID-19 infection in mildly ill infected adults.23 Importantly, immunocompromised patients seem to be good candidates for convalescent plasma therapy. Promising results have been reported using hyperimmune plasma from convalescent donors, which has been proven to be successful in multiple patients with different pathologies requiring immunosuppression with rituximab.6–10 12
Our patient was initially treated with corticosteroids, according to the Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy (RECOVERY) Trial protocol, and because of recurrent fever, persistent lung infiltrates and moderate hypoxaemia, alternative causes were investigated. Microbial agents were identified and treated, as well as presumed opportunistic infections, without signs of clinical improvement. Because BAL was compatible with cryptogenic organising pneumonia, corticosteroid dose was increased, but hypoxaemia worsened. This highlights the fact that cryptogenic organising pneumonia may be mistaken for protracted SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, which has important implications since each of these conditions require a different treatment. In fact, high-dose corticosteroid therapy can exacerbate viral replication, potentially increasing the mortality of patients with severe COVID-19.24 Our patient had persistently positive SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR on repeated nasopharyngeal swabs over the course of 3 months, but persistent infection was only proven after virus infectivity was confirmed in cell culture assays. Despite a prolonged hospital stay, the patient experienced a quick recovery following convalescent plasma treatment.
This is particularly relevant because it shows that persistent severe hypoxaemia and pulmonary infiltrates for more than 100 days after initial SARS-CoV-2 infection might be caused by sustained viral infection, and it suggests that convalescent plasma could be considered as a valid therapy in this specific group of immunosuppressed patients. To our knowledge, this is the first case report of a patient with SLE treated with rituximab who received convalescent plasma, late in the course of a prolonged SARS-CoV-2 infection with success. A recent retrospective study reported a lower risk of death in hospitalised patients who received convalescent plasma within 3 days (early) after the diagnosis of COVID-19, compared with those who received a transfusion later in the disease course.25 More studies are needed to determine the optimal timing for starting plasma therapy in immunosuppressed patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. We could speculate that, in severely immunocompromised patients who are hospitalised, early transfusion with high-titre plasma could result in better outcomes. However, we recognise the limitations of our findings since they rely on a single case report and acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence and even conflicting data to recommend the generalised use of convalescent plasma in patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection.22 26 27 More robust research is needed to evaluate the benefit of using convalescent plasma in immunosuppressed patients, in particular regarding patients with rheumatological disease in the context of COVID-19, and to determine the optimal timing for initiating plasma therapy in these patients.
The 93 days I spent in the hospital were hard, complicated, sometimes without hope of getting better but always with great professionals around, giving me hope and courage. I spent Christmas day and New Year’s Eve in the hospital. The absence of my family was the hardest thing. I felt sad, abandoned, desolated, without distraction but always with a smile, so that things weren’t even worse. Those were sad days. At the time of hospital discharge, I was very happy but then I was hit by the reality of living with the sequelae of COVID-19 … the extreme tiredness, not having the strength for the basic activities of daily life. To live one day at a time. That is my motto.
Rituximab induces a deep depletion of both humoral and B-cell response to several micro-organisms, increasing the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Our patient was severely immunocompromised after receiving rituximab for her systemic lupus erythematosus and developed prolonged SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia with hypoxaemia that lasted more than 3 months.
Cryptogenic organising pneumonia may be mistaken for protracted SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, and each of these require different treatments.
She was successfully treated after receiving a 4-day course of high-titre convalescent plasma.
I would like to thank Dr César Ribeiro, Drª Anabela Ferreira, Drª Isabel Cruz (Departmento de Medicina Interna, Unidade Local de Saúde de Matosinhos - Hospital Pedro Hispano) and Drª Helena Cruz Gomes (Departmento de Imunohemoterapia, Centro Hospitalar de Vila Nova de Gaia/Espinho) for support on analysing the data and critically revising the manuscript. I also thank Drª Fátima Seabra (Departamento de Medicina, Unidade Local de Saúde de Matosinhos, Hospital Pedro Hispano), Drª Valquíria Alves and Drª Maria João Soares (Serviço de Microbiologia, Unidade Local de Saúde de Matosinhos - Hospital Pedro Hispano), Drª Sofia Jordão (Serviço de Infecciologia, Unidade Local de Saúde de Matosinhos - Hospital Pedro Hispano), Drª Raquel Guiomar (Instituto Nacional de Saúde Doutor Ricardo Jorge) and all the members of Unidade de Cuidados Intermédios Polivalente of ULSM-HPH.
Contributors SM-P was the patient’s doctor and wrote the article as well as collected and treated the data and images. RC and LG were the patient's doctors, contributed to reach a diagnosis and helped to review the article. FS was also the patient’s doctor and helped in the therapeutic approach of using convalescent plasma.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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