Multiple Sclerosis and COVID-19: What We Know Now
Aug 14, 2020 Katie Rosenblum
Updated February 8, 2021
Early on in the pandemic, patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease, were thought to possibly be at higher-than-average risk for COVID-19 due to their condition. We sat down with Cedars-Sinai expert Dr. Nancy Sicotte, chair of the Department of Neurology, to learn more.
"We want patients to know they are not at extra risk due to their MS and it's not practical or appropriate to stop taking their medications."
Doctors previously believed MS patients were at higher risk for COVID-19. Why is that?
Dr. Nancy Sicotte: MS patients have an autoimmune disorder, so we are always concerned about them getting infections. We always want them to get a flu shot, for example, so we can avoid irritating the disease.
They are also on therapies that suppress their immune systems further and make them more vulnerable. Some have significant disability, which also increases risk for not being able to recover well from infection.
Initially, we were getting a lot of calls from patients who were worried. I told them not to go out to crowds and to stay close to home.
As things got worse, people really started to panic. Confusing international guidelines came out about treatments, and many people thought they needed to go off medications. It was a confusing time for patients.
What has changed since then?
NS: This is a unique infection and we didn't know a lot about it in the beginning, but we wanted to make recommendations to our patients based on data—not conjecture. The MS community around the world came together to share information in a powerful way. We've been able to provide more specific, less scary information now because of that.
Current evidence tells us that MS patients aren't any more or less likely to get infected and don't seem to get a worse case if they do get sick. People who are on treatment for MS and have gotten COVID-19 haven't had worse outcomes like we thought they might.
What do you want MS patients to know going forward?
NS: We want patients to know they are not at extra risk due to their MS and it's not practical or appropriate to stop taking their medications. We encourage patients to continue their treatments during this time. Our facilities are safe to come to for treatment. The infusion center is separate from the main hospital, and patients can feel comfortable being there.
As we learn more about this disease, we will continue to make the best recommendations we can to keep our patients healthy and safe.
Are the currently approved vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) safe for MS patients to receive when it becomes available to them?
NS: Yes, based on available data, we recommend MS patients get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is offered to them. MS disease modifying therapies (DMTs) are not expected to interfere with the vaccine, but patients should consult with their physicians to consider timing the vaccine around treatments. However, because COVID-19 poses serious health risks and supplies are still limited, getting the vaccine as soon as possible may be more important than timing it around treatment.