Study Links COVID-19 to Autoimmune and Vascular Diseases Otesanya David March 26, 2022

Study Links COVID-19 to Autoimmune and Vascular Diseases

Study Links COVID-19 to Autoimmune and Vascular Diseases


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Following infection with SARS-CoV-2 infection, patients between the ages of 18 and 65 were at a significantly increased for developing certain cutaneous autoimmune and vascular diseases. This predominately favored systemic disease states with cutaneous involvement, rather than skin-limited processes.

The findings come from a large multicenter analysis that Zachary Holcomb, MD, presented during a late-breaking abstract session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

“Viral triggers have been implicated in the pathogenesis of rheumatologic disease, but information regarding development of autoimmune disease following SARS-CoV-2 infection is limited,” said Holcomb, chief resident in the Harvard Combined Internal Medicine–Dermatology Residency, Boston. “Given its proposed thromboinflammatory pathobiology, we hypothesized that SARS-CoV-2 infection increases the risk of development of autoimmune disease with cutaneous manifestations and sought to define incidence rates of newly-diagnosed autoimmune diseases following SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

The researchers drew from the TriNetX Dataworks platform, an online cloud-based system that contains aggregated and deidentified patient information from about 75 million patients across 48 health care organizations. The infected cohort was defined as having a positive lab test for severe SARS-CoV-2 within the study window using Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes (LOINCs). Healthy controls consisted of a documented health care contact (inpatient or outpatient visit) during the study window without a positive SARS-CoV-2 lab test. Each cohort included patients aged 18-65 at the time of the study, and patients with previously diagnosed cutaneous autoimmune or vascular diseases were excluded from the analysis.

After propensity matching, the COVID-19 infected cohort and the healthy cohort included 1,904,864 patients each, with no baseline differences in age at index event, ethnicity, race, or sex. The study window was between April 1, 2020, and Oct. 1, 2020. The index event was a COVID-19 infection for the infected group and first documented health care contact in the healthy control group. The researchers looked at a window of 60 days following this index event for new incidence of cutaneous or vascular disease.

In the realm of connective tissue and related diseases, they found the incidence was increased among the COVID-19 infected group compared with controls for dermatomyositis (risk ratio, 2.273; = .0196), scleroderma (RR, 1.959; = .0001), and systemic lupus erythematous (RR, 1.401; < .0001). They also noted a significant decrease in the new incidence of alopecia areata in the COVID-19 infected group compared with controls (RR, 0.527; < .0001).

No significant differences in the incidence of bullous and papulosquamous diseases were observed between the two groups. However, sarcoidosis was significantly more common in the COVID-19–infected group compared with controls (RR, 2.086; < .001). “When taking all of these autoinflammatory diseases as a whole, there was an increased incidence in the COVID-19 infected group overall with a RR of 1.168 (< .0001),” Holcomb said.

In the realm of vascular skin diseases, there was an increased incidence in the COVID-19 infected group in acrocyanosis (RR, 2.825; P < .001), Raynaud’s phenomenon (RR, 1.462; P < .0001), cutaneous small vessel vasculitis (RR, 1.714; P < .0001), granulomatosis with polyangiitis (RR, 2.667; = .0002), and temporal arteritis (RR, 1.900; P = .0038).

“Interestingly, despite the academic and lay press reports of COVID toes, we did not see that in our data related to the COVID-infected group,” he said.

Holcomb acknowledged certain limitations of the study, including a narrow study window with a relatively short follow-up. “We were able to propensity match based on baseline demographics but not necessarily so based on health status and prior autoimmune disease,” he said. In addition, since the study was limited to those aged 18-65, the results may not be generalizable to pediatric and elderly patients, he said.

He described the study findings as “somewhat hypothesis-generating.” For instance, “why would we have more of a systemic process [at play?]. Our theory is that the severe inflammatory nature of COVID-19 leads to a lot of internal organ damage and exposure of autoantigens in that process, with relative skin sparing.”

One of the session moderators, Robert Paul Dellavalle, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado, Aurora, characterized the findings as “intriguing” but preliminary. “It would be interesting to look at more recent cohorts and see how vaccination for COVID-19 would impact the incidence rates of some of these diseases,” he said.

Holcomb reported having no financial disclosures. Dellavalle disclosed that he is a consultant for Altus Labs and ParaPRO LLC. He has received grants and research funding from Pfizer.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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