LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - Dexamethasone, a cheap and widely used steroid, has become the first drug shown to be able to save lives among coronavirus patients in what scientists hailed as a "major breakthrough".
Results of trials announced on Tuesday (June 16) showed dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in other diseases, reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital.
The results suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease, said the researchers who led the trials.
"This is a 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 Prof Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial, known as the Recovery trial.
"It's going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than £50 (S$88), you can treat eight patients and save a life," he told reporters in an online briefing.
His co-lead investigator, Prof Peter Horby, said dexamethasone was "the only drug that's so far shown to reduce mortality - and it reduces it significantly".
"It is a major breakthrough," he said.
"Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide."
There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 431,000 globally.
The Recovery trial compared outcomes of around 2,100 patients who were randomly assigned to get the steroid, with those of around 4,300 patients who did not get it.
The results suggest that one death would be prevented by treatment with dexamethasone among every eight ventilated Covid-19 patients, Prof Landray said, and one death would be prevented among every 25 Covid-19 patients that received the drug and are on oxygen.
Among patients with Covid-19 who did not require respiratory support, there was no benefit from treatment with dexamethasone.
"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," Prof Horby said.
Dr Nick Cammack, a coronavirus expert at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the findings would "transform the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world".
"Countless lives will be saved globally," he said in a statement responding to the results.
The Recovery trial was launched in April as a randomised clinical trial to test a range of potential treatments for Covid-19, including low-dose dexamethasone and the malaria drug hydoxycholoroquine.
The hydroxychloroquine arm was halted earlier this month after Prof Horby and Prof Landray said results showed it was "useless" at treating Covid-19 patients.
Global cases of infection with the new coronavirus have exceeded eight million, and almost 440,000 people have died after contracting the virus, the first case of which was reported in China in early January.
Britain will immediately start giving the generic steroid drug dexamethasone to coronavirus patients, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.
He said Britain began stockpiling the widely available drug when its potential first became apparent three months ago.
"Because we spotted the early signs of the potential of dexamethasone, we've been stockpiling it since March," Mr Hancock said in a video statement.
"So we now have 200,000 courses that are ready to go and we're working with the NHS (National Health Service) so that the NHS standard treatment for Covid-19 will include dexamethasone from this afternoon."