A cheap steroid called dexamethasone has been found to reduce the risk of death by up to one-third among coronavirus patients with severe respiratory complications, University of Oxford researchers have said.
Scientists working on the Recovery Trial found the drug could help patients on ventilators and oxygen, but had no effect on those who did not need help breathing.
The drug is part of the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments to see if they also work for coronavirus.
Researchers estimate that if the drug had been available in the UK from the start of the coronavirus pandemic up to 5,000 lives could have been saved. Because it is cheap, it could also be of huge benefit in poorer countries struggling with high numbers of Covid-19 patients.
In the trial, led by a team from Oxford University, around 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone and were compared with more than 4,000 who did not receive the drug.
For patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 40% to 28%. For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25% to 20%.
Chief investigator Prof Peter Horby said: “This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly. It’s a major breakthrough.”
Lead researcher Prof Martin Landray says the findings suggest that for every eight patients treated on ventilators, you could save one life.
For those patients treated with oxygen, you save one life for approximately every 20-25 treated with the drug.
“There is a clear, clear benefit. The treatment is up to 10 days of dexamethasone and it costs about £5 per patient. So essentially it costs £35 to save a life. This is a drug that is globally available.”
Prof Landray said, when appropriate, hospital patients should now be given it without delay, but people should not go out and buy it to take at home.
Dexamethasone does not appear to help people with milder symptoms of coronavirus – those who don’t need help with their breathing.
The Recovery Trial has been running since March. It included the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine which has subsequently been ditched amid concerns that it increases fatalities and heart problems.
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