A cheap and widely available steroid has been found to significantly reduce the risk of dying from Covid-19, in what scientists have hailed as one of the biggest coronavirus drug breakthroughs to date.
Dexamethasone was found to reduce deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving oxygen, according to the results of the Recovery trial led by Oxford university. There was no benefit found among patients who were not receiving ventilatory support.
“This is not the play of chance, this is a statistically compelling result,” said Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford and deputy chief investigator of the Recovery trial. “It works for the sickest patients which is exactly what one would hope for.”
The findings have “instant global importance”, according to Prof Landray, as the drug is cheap and readily available in most countries. It costs roughly £5 in the UK and as little as $1 in countries such as India.
“It will save lives and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” he said, estimating that up to 5,000 fewer people would have died from the virus in the UK if dexamethasone had been used from the start of the pandemic.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said: “This is the most important trial result for Covid-19 so far. Significant reduction in mortality in those requiring oxygen or ventilation from a widely available, safe and well known drug. Many thanks to those who took part and made it happen. It will save lives around the world.”
Nick Cammack, Covid-19 therapeutics accelerator lead at Wellcome Trust, a UK-based research charity, who was not involved in the study, said: “This is a major breakthrough: dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for Covid-19.”
The UK’s NHS will be advised to offer dexamethasone as a treatment to all Covid-19 patients on ventilators or receiving oxygen.
Covid-19 causes an inflammatory response usually about seven days after a person contracts the virus, and in many cases this response harms patients more than it helps. The steroids are believed to help patients by reducing inflammation in the lungs, enabling them to recover.
As part of the Recovery trial, a total of 2,104 patients received a low dose of dexamethasone once per day, either by mouth or by intravenous injection, for 10 days in a randomised control trial, compared with 4,321 patients who did not receive the steroid.
Among patients who did not receive the drug, there was a 41 per cent mortality rate among those who required ventilation, 25 per cent mortality rate among those who required oxygen, and a 13 per cent mortality rate among those who did not have any respiratory intervention.