Interleukin 6 (IL‐6) blocking agents have been used for treating severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19). Their immunosuppressive effect might be valuable in patients with COVID‐19 characterised by substantial immune system dysfunction by controlling inflammation and promoting disease tolerance.
To assess the effect of IL‐6 blocking agents compared to standard care alone or with placebo on efficacy and safety outcomes in COVID‐19.
We will update this assessment regularly.
We searched the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (up to 11 February 2021) and the L‐OVE platform, and Cochrane COVID‐19 Study Register to identify trials up to 26 February 2021.
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating IL‐6 blocking agents compared with standard care alone or with placebo for people with COVID‐19, regardless of disease severity.
Data collection and analysis
We followed standard Cochrane methodology. The protocol was amended to reduce the number of outcomes considered. Two review authors independently collected data and assessed the risk of bias with the Cochrane Risk of Bias 2 tool. We rated the certainty of evidence with the GRADE approach for the critical outcomes such as clinical improvement (defined as hospital discharge or improvement on the scale used by trialists to evaluate clinical progression or recovery) (day (D) 28 / ≥ D60); WHO Clinical Progression Score of level 7 or above (i.e. the proportion of participants with mechanical ventilation +/‐ additional organ support OR death) (D28 / ≥ D60); all‐cause mortality (D28 / ≥ D60); incidence of any adverse events; and incidence of serious adverse events.
We identified 10 RCTs with available data including one platform trial comparing tocilizumab and sarilumab with standard of care. These trials evaluated tocilizumab (nine RCTs including two platform trials; seven were reported as peer‐reviewed articles, two as preprints; 6428 randomised participants); and two sarilumab (one platform trial reported as peer reviewed article, one reported as preprint, 880 randomised participants).
All trials included were multicentre trials. They were conducted in Brazil, China, France, Italy, UK, USA, and four were multi‐country trials. The mean age range of participants ranged from 56 to 65 years; 4572 (66.3%) of trial participants were male. Disease severity ranged from mild to critical disease. The reported proportion of participants on oxygen at baseline but not intubated varied from 56% to 100% where reported. Five trials reported the inclusion of intubated patients at baseline.
We identified a further 20 registered RCTs of tocilizumab compared to placebo/standard care (five completed without available results, five terminated without available results, eight ongoing, two not recruiting); 11 RCTs of sarilumab (two completed without results, three terminated without available results, six ongoing); six RCTs of clazakisumab (five ongoing, one not recruiting); two RCTs of olokizumab (one completed, one not recruiting); one of siltuximab (ongoing) and one RCT of levilimab (completed without available results). Of note, three were cancelled (2 tocilizumab, 1 clazakisumab). One multiple‐arm RCT evaluated both tocilizumab and sarilumab compared to standard of care, one three‐arm RCT evaluated tocilizumab and siltuximab compared to standard of care and consequently they appear in each respective comparison.
Tocilizumab versus standard care alone or with placebo
a. Effectiveness of tocilizumab for patients with COVID‐19
Tocilizumab probably results in little or no increase in the outcome of clinical improvement at D28 (RR 1.06, 95% CI 1.00 to 1.13; I2 = 40.9%; 7 RCTs, 5585 participants; absolute effect: 31 more with clinical improvement per 1000 (from 0 fewer to 67 more); moderate‐certainty evidence). However, we cannot exclude that some subgroups of patients could benefit from the treatment. We did not obtain data for longer‐term follow‐up (≥ D60).
The effect of tocilizumab on the proportion of participants with a WHO Clinical Progression Score of level of 7 or above is uncertain at D28 (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.56 to 1.74; I2 = 64.4%; 3 RCTs, 712 participants; low‐certainty evidence). We did not obtain data for longer‐term follow‐up (≥ D60).
Tocilizumab reduces all‐cause mortality at D28 compared to standard care alone or placebo (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.82 to 0.97; I2 = 0.0%; 8 RCTs, 6363 participants; absolute effect: 32 fewer deaths per 1000 (from 52 fewer to 9 fewer); high‐certainty evidence). There is uncertainty around the effect on mortality at ≥ D60 (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.53 to 1.40; I2 = 0.0%; 2 RCTs, 519 participants; low‐certainty evidence).
b. Safety of tocilizumab for patients with COVID‐19
The evidence is very uncertain about the effect of tocilizumab on adverse events (RR 1.23, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.72; I2 = 86.4%; 7 RCTs, 1534 participants; very low‐certainty evidence). Nevertheless, tocilizumab probably results in slightly fewer serious adverse events than standard care alone or placebo (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.75 to 1.06; I2 = 0.0%; 8 RCTs, 2312 participants; moderate‐certainty evidence).
Sarilumab versus standard care alone or with placebo
The evidence is uncertain about the effect of sarilumab on all‐cause mortality at D28 (RR 0.77, 95% CI 0.43 to 1.36; 2 RCTs, 880 participants; low certainty), on all‐cause mortality at ≥ D60 (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.50 to 2.0; 1 RCT, 420 participants; low certainty), and serious adverse events (RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.77; 2 RCTs, 880 participants; low certainty). It is unlikely that sarilumab results in an important increase of adverse events (RR 1.05, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.25; 1 RCT, 420 participants; moderate certainty). However, an increase cannot be excluded
No data were available for other critical outcomes.
On average, tocilizumab reduces all‐cause mortality at D28 compared to standard care alone or placebo and probably results in slightly fewer serious adverse events than standard care alone or placebo. Nevertheless, tocilizumab probably results in little or no increase in the outcome clinical improvement (defined as hospital discharge or improvement measured by trialist‐defined scales) at D28. The impact of tocilizumab on other outcomes is uncertain or very uncertain. With the data available, we were not able to explore heterogeneity. Individual patient data meta‐analyses are needed to be able to identify which patients are more likely to benefit from this treatment.
Evidence for an effect of sarilumab is uncertain and evidence for other anti‐IL6 agents is unavailable.
Thirty‐nine RCTs of IL‐6 blocking agents with no results are currently registered, of which nine are completed and seven trials were terminated with no results available. The findings of this review will be updated as new data are made available on the COVID‐NMA platform (covid-nma.com).