The United Kingdom (UK) has found an unexpected sign of hope amid the unravelling pandemic in the low-cost, commonly available drug dexamethasone. Scientists from the University of Oxford on Tuesday, 16 June, called dexamethasone the first drug proven to reduce coronavirus-related deaths following a 6,000-patient trial in Britain.
Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid that has been around since the 1960s. The medicine is used to reduce inflammation in various conditions, such as inflammatory disorders and certain cancers. The drug has been on the World Health Organisation (WHO) List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in multiple formulations. It is also off-patent and affordably available in many countries.
Researchers found that the drug has prevented the deaths of some hospitalised patients. Dexamethasone appeared to help those with severe cases of the viral disease. It reduced deaths by a third in those receiving ventilation, and by a fifth in patients receiving standard oxygen treatment, said the scientists. Milder cases that did not require respiratory support showed no benefit from the drug.
The findings show that the drug prevents one death for every eight ventilated patients. Had doctors used the steroid to treat the sickest patients at the onset of the pandemic, researchers estimate that up to 5,000 deaths could have been prevented.
“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment,” said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford and one of the trial’s chief investigators. Horby has recommended that the drug become the “standard of care in these patients,” citing its low cost and wide availability.
It is not yet completely clear how the steroid helped the patients, although the drug appeared to reduce damage to lung tissue. Medical experts say it is possible that the drug tamped down the overactive inflammatory response to the virus – or cytokine storm – in some patients, rather than inhibiting the virus itself.
British health secretary Matt Hancock has said that doctors in the UK’s National Health Service would include the steroid as part of the standard treatment for hospitalised coronavirus patients. The UK government previously stockpiled dexamethasone based on early signs of it helping patients. Hancock said the UK has 200,000 doses of the drug on hand.
The WHO welcomed the initial clinical trial results involving the drug.
“This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support. This is great news and I congratulate the Government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Researchers have shared insights concerning the trial’s results with the WHO.
COVID-19 has so far infected over 8 million people globally, of which nearly 440,000 were fatal.