Efficacy and safety of tocilizumab in COVID-19 patients: a living systematic review and meta-analysis

Clin Microbiol Infect. 2021 Feb;27(2):215-227. doi: 10.1016/j.cmi.2020.10.036. Epub 2020 Nov 5.


Objectives: Cytokine release syndrome with elevated interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels is associated with multiorgan damage and death in severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Our objective was to perform a living systematic review of the literature concerning the efficacy and toxicity of the IL-6 receptor antagonist tocilizumab in COVID-19 patients.

Methods: Data sources were Ovid MEDLINE(R) and Epub Ahead of Print, In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations and Daily, Ovid Embase, Ovid Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Ovid Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Web of Science, Scopus up, preprint servers and Google up to October 8, 2020. Study eligibility criteria were randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and observational studies at low or moderate risk of bias. Participants were hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Interventions included tocilizumab versus placebo or standard of care. We pooled crude risk ratios (RRs) of RCTs and adjusted RRs from cohorts, separately. We evaluated inconsistency between studies with I2. We assessed the certainty of evidence using the GRADE approach.

Results: Of 1156 citations, 24 studies were eligible (five RCTs and 19 cohorts). Five RCTs at low risk of bias, with 1325 patients, examined the effect of tocilizumab on short-term mortality; pooled RR was 1.09 (95%CI 0.80-1.49, I2 = 0%). Four RCTs with 771 patients examined the effect of tocilizumab on risk of mechanical ventilation; pooled RR was 0.71 (95%CI 0.52-0.96, I2 = 0%), with a corresponding number needed to treat of 17 (95%CI 9-100). Among 18 cohorts at moderate risk of bias with 9850 patients, the pooled adjusted RR for mortality was 0.58 (95%CI 0.51-0.66, I2 = 2.5%). This association was observed over all degrees of COVID-19 severity. Data from the RCTs did not show a higher risk of infections or adverse events with tocilizumab: pooled RR 0.63 (95%CI 0.38-1.06, five RCTs) and 0.83 (95%CI 0.55-1.24, five RCTs), respectively.

Conclusions: Cumulative moderate-certainty evidence shows that tocilizumab reduces the risk of mechanical ventilation in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. While RCTs showed that tocilizumab did not reduce short-term mortality, low-certainty evidence from cohort studies suggests an association between tocilizumab and lower mortality. We did not observe a higher risk of infections or adverse events with tocilizumab use. This review will continuously evaluate the role of tocilizumab in COVID-19 treatment.

Keywords: COVID-19; Meta-analysis; Mortality; Tocilizumab; Toxicity.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / therapeutic use*
  • COVID-19 / mortality
  • COVID-19 / therapy
  • COVID-19 Drug Treatment*
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome / drug therapy
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome / mortality
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome / therapy
  • Humans
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Odds Ratio
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Receptors, Interleukin-6 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Respiration, Artificial / statistics & numerical data
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Safety


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Receptors, Interleukin-6
  • tocilizumab