LONDON - A cheap and widely available steroid drug has shown it can save the lives of the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients, British researchers said Tuesday.
Scientists called the use of dexamethasone, normally used to reduce inflammation in patients with arthritis and other diseases, a "major breakthrough" in the treatment of patients infected by the coronavirus who have been hospitalized and needed the use of a ventilator or supplemental oxygen.
Researchers at the University of Oxford said that a study of more than 6,400 patients — a third of whom were administered the drug and two-thirds of whom were not — showed that use of the drug was particularly beneficial for the most seriously ill patients but did not appear to help less ill patients.
They said the drug, either administered orally or through an IV, reduced deaths by 35% in patients who needed treatment with a ventilator and by 20% in those who only needed supplemental oxygen.
"This is an extremely welcome result," researcher Peter Horby said in a statement. "The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide."
Britain's health minister said the state-run health service would immediately start using the drug for the most severe COVID-19 patients and had stockpiled 200,000 courses of the treatment.
"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 who co-led the research.
"It's going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than 50 pounds ($63.26), you can treat eight patients and save a life," he said in an online briefing.
The researchers said that had the drug been used from the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, up to 5,000 lives in Britain could have been saved.
The research on dexamethasone was part of the same study that earlier this month showed the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was not working against the coronavirus, the same outcome other tests have shown. U.S. President Donald Trump for weeks touted the use of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus preventive treatment and said he took the drug earlier during the pandemic.
Researchers in the U.S. and elsewhere are in a frantic rush to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, but experts say it could be next year or beyond before such a cure is found.