An inexpensive and widely-available steroid drug, Dexamethasone, has reportedly become the first drug that has saved the lives of patients severely ill with COVID-19. Scientists in the United Kingdom are touting the drug, which is effective at low doses, as a “breakthrough” in the coronavirus pandemic.
The drug is part of the world’s largest trial looking into existing medicines and treatments to see if any of them are also effective against the coronavirus. The study reportedly found that Dexamethasone, which is otherwise used to reduce inflammation in diseases like arthritis, also reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely-ill COVID-19 patients that were admitted to hospitals in the UK.
Dexamethasone in severe COVID-19 cases
For COVID-19 patients on ventilators, the dexamethasone treatment was shown to reduce mortality by about one third, and for patients requiring only oxygen, mortality was cut by about one fifth.
Had the drug been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the pandemic, up to 5,000 lives could have been saved, the researchers have claimed. They have recommended that the drug be immediately administered as standard care in patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
The study’s preliminary results are yet to be peer-reviewed by others in the scientific community. But this hasn’t stopped the medical fraternity and officers in the UK government from sharing their views on social media.
“This is the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far,” Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said on Twitter about the findings of the UK-led clinical trial known as ‘RECOVERY’. “Significant reduction in mortality in those requiring oxygen or ventilation from a widely available, safe, and well-known drug… It will save lives around the world.”
WHO’s comments on the findings
The World Health Organisation, too, took to Twitter to share their official view on the study.
“The researchers shared initial insights about the dexamethasone results of the trial with WHO, and we are looking forward to the full data analysis in the coming days,” the organization tweeted.
WHO welcomes the initial clinical trial results from the #UnitedKingdom that show #dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, can be lifesaving for patients who are critically ill with #COVID19 👉 https://t.co/CmNea2XEKH
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) June 16, 2020
“WHO will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention. WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in COVID-19,” a statement published on WHO’s website about the study, continued.
“This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in the statement. “This is great news, and I congratulate the Government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients in the UK who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough.”
Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid drug that has been used since the 1960s to lower inflammation in a variety of conditions, mainly inflammatory disorders, and some cancers. It is listed in WHO’s Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in a range of formulations and is currently off-patent, and affordable and available in most countries.
The RECOVERY Trial
As part of the RECOVERY trial, a range of potential treatments is being tested in patients being admitted to the UK National Health Service (NHS) hospitals that are positive for COVID-19. Sponsored by Oxford University in England, the trial is assessing the effectiveness of different potential COVID-19 treatments on their ability to reduce all-cause (overall) mortality within 28 days.
So far, over 11,000 patients have been enrolled in the trial, making it a significant player generating data for COVID-19 therapies.
“Nobody knows if any of them will turn out to be more effective in helping people recover than the usual standard of hospital care which all patients will receive,” says the trial’s website. All patients admitted to the NHS with COVID-19 will be offered an option of either standard care or standard care and the potentially life-saving treatments being tested in the trail.
Presently, the RECOVERY Trial is testing a handful of drugs in consenting patients:
- Lopinavir-Ritonavir (commonly used to treat HIV)
- Low-dose Dexamethasone (a corticosteroid medicine used to treat inflammation)
- Hydroxychloroquine (an anti-malarial drug used to prevent and treat malaria in areas where the disease is sensitive to chloroquine)
- Azithromycin (a commonly-used antibiotic)
- Tocilizumab (an anti-inflammatory treatment given by injection)
- Convalescent plasma (collected from donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and contains antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus).
The team supervising the trials are reportedly reviewing information on new drugs that will be incorporated/replace these drugs as and when they show promise in ongoing trials around the world.
The data from the trial itself will be regularly reviewed; the website reads so that effective treatment can be identified quickly and made available to all patients.