A cheap and widely-used steroid called dexamethasone has become the first drug shown to be able to save lives among Covid-19 patients in what scientists said is a “major breakthrough” in the coronavirus pandemic.
Trial results announced on Tuesday showed dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in other diseases such as arthritis, reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the drug had been approved for use in the NHS, export restrictions had been introduced and Britain had stockpiled 200,000 courses of the treatment.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed it as “the world’s first successful clinical trial for a treatment for Covid-19”.
“This astounding breakthrough is testament to the incredible work being done by our scientists behind the scenes.
“From today the standard treatment for Covid-19 will include dexamethasone, helping save thousands of lives while we deal with this terrible virus.
“Guided by the science, the UK is leading the way in the global fight against coronavirus – with the best clinical trials, the best vaccine development and the best immunology research in the world.
“I want to thank the brilliant scientists at Oxford University, the thousands of patients who took part in the study, and my own team, led by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who has done such a brilliant job driving this work.”
The preliminary results suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease, said the researchers who led the trials.
The researchers said they would work to publish the full details of the trial as soon as possible, with some scientists saying they wished to review the evidence for themselves.
“This is a (trial) result that shows that if patients who have Covid-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” said Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial, known as the RECOVERY trial.
“It’s going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than 50 pounds ($63), you can treat eight patients and save a life,” he said in an online briefing.
His co-lead investigator, Peter Horby, said dexamethasone was “the only drug that’s so far shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly.”
“It is a major breakthrough,” he said. “Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”
There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which has killed more than 431,000 people globally.
Save lives around the world
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said Tuesday’s announcement was “the most important trial result for Covid-19 so far”, adding: “It will save lives around the world”.
His deputy, Jonathan Van-Tam, said the data had not yet been peer-reviewed but the results highlighted the importance of properly conducted clinical trials and robust data.
The RECOVERY trial compared outcomes of around 2,100 patients who were randomly assigned to get the steroid, with those of around 4,300 patients who did not get it.
“We hope the data on which these results are based will be published as soon as possible so that doctors can confidently put the treatment into practice,” said Robin Ferner, Honorary Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at University of Birmingham.
The results suggest one death would be prevented by treatment with dexamethasone in every eight ventilated COVID-19 patients, Landray said, and one death would be prevented in every 25 COVID-19 patients that received the drug and were on oxygen.
(With input from Reuters)