LONDON – The steroid dexamethasone has been found to reduce the risk deaths in serious coronavirus cases by a third, according to trial results hailed on Tuesday as a “major breakthrough”.
Researchers led by a team from the University of Oxford administered the widely available drug to more than 2,000 severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Among those who could only breathe with the help of a ventilator, dexamethasone reduced deaths by 35 percent, and by one-fifth in other patients receiving oxygen only, according to preliminary results.
Normally used to treat a range of allergic reactions as well as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, dexamethasone is an anti-inflammatory.
Daily doses of the steroid could prevent one in eight ventilated patient deaths and save one out of every 25 patients requiring oxygen alone, the team said.
READ: AstraZeneca ‘on track’ to roll out COVID-19 vaccine in September
The trial included a control group of 4,000 patients who did not receive the treatment.
“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result,” said Peter Horby, professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford.
“Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”
Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock said patients would start to receive the drug immediately.
Hancock said the government had started stockpiling dexamethasone back in March after preliminary trials showed “early signs” of the drug’s potential.
– ‘Remarkable’ potential –
The trial results are particularly promising as around 40 percent of COVID-19 patients who require a ventilator end up dying, often because of the body’s uncontrolled inflammatory response to the virus.
“This is a major breakthrough: dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for COVID-19,” said Nick Cammack, COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Lead at the Wellcome Trust health charity.
“Potentially preventing one death in every eight ventilated patients would be remarkable.”
The trial showed dexamethasone to be ineffective in treating patients with milder forms of COVID-19, however.
READ: COVID-19: SA starts coronavirus trial of TB vaccine
A number of existing drugs have been trialled as a treatment against the novel coronavirus, with mixed results.
Trials of treatment of anti-arthritis drug hydroxychloroquine were halted in several countries after a major study in The Lancet medical journal suggested it showed no benefit among COVID-19 patients and even increased the risk of death.
That study has since been retracted.
Remdesivir, an anti-viral that appears to reduce the length of treatment in some patients is already being used in Britain, but one study in April showed it had “no clinical benefit”.
The fact that an existing, cheap and largely side-effect free medication has been shown to be effective in severe COVID-19 cases is “of tremendous importance”, according to Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds.
“There is (now) realistic scope for further improving the clinical management of this devastating disease,” said Griffin, who was not involved in the study.