Good news: researchers at the University of Oxford have identified a drug (dexamethasone) that could help save the lives of patients seriously ill with coronavirus.
The finding represents a major breakthrough in the fight against the pandemic, and it could represent the first drug proven to help against COVID-19. With over seven million positive cases around the world, this is much-needed good news.
Dexamethasone, a low-cost steroid, was tested as part of a 6,000-patient trial in the United Kingdom and the results were remarkably optimistic. It reduced deaths by a third in patients receiving ventilation, and by a fifth in patients receiving standard oxygen treatment, although no benefit was seen on the patients who didn’t need respiratory support.
If the drug had been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the pandemic, up to 5,000 lives could have been saved in the country alone the researchers said, adding that its use could be highly beneficial now in poorer countries with high numbers of Covid-19 patients.
“It’s the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result. 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,” said in a statement Peter Horby, one of the investigators.
It is estimated that about 19 out of 20 patients with coronavirus recover without being admitted to the hospital. Of those who are admitted, most also recover but some may need oxygen or mechanical ventilation. These are the high-risk patients that dexamethasone could help.
The drug is currently used to reduce inflammation in several conditions such as asthma and arthritis. In the case of coronavirus, the drug appears to help stop the damage that can occur when the immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight off coronavirus. But more studies will be needed to establish this precisely.
Doctors in the UK will now begin using dexamethasone as the standard treatment for hospitalized coronavirus patients, Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said. The government had already started stockpiling the drug several months ago and already has 200,000 doses available.
“These preliminary results from the trial are very clear – dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications. COVID-19 is a global disease – it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide,” said Martin Landray, one of the investigators.
So far, the only other drug that has some evidence to reduce COVID-19 damage is Remdesivir, which has been used for Ebola. That has been shown to reduce the duration of coronavirus symptoms from an average of 15 days to 11. But the evidence was not strong enough yet to show whether it reduced mortality. The drug is already being made available, but Remdesivir is far more expensive than dexamethasone. With dexamethasone, it could cost <$50 to save a life.
This is another reason why we work to flatten the curve: the more we find out about the disease, the more time we have to find ways to approach it, the likelier we are to save more drugs.
If dexamethasone, a cheap and already available drug is confirmed to help coronavirus patients, it could be a momentous breakthrough. However, the findings weren’t published in a peer-reviewed journal -- which means the verdict is still out on the quality of the study. The results were announced via a press release and the study has not yet been officially published, which casts an important shadow over the reliability of the findings.
We've already seen impactful papers being retracted just days ago, and we'll keep a cautiously optimistic approach for now. The press release was announced on the 16th of June, and researchers say that they are working to publish their results as quickly as possible.