A pharmacist displays an ampoule of dexamethasone at the Erasme Hospital amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium, June 16, 2020.

by Jamie Dettmer

British scientists announced  a major coronavirus breakthrough, saying a cheap, readily-available steroid can prevent deaths from COVID-19. 

Scientists from Britain’s University of Oxford say in a trial the drug dexamethasone reduced death rates by 35% for patients on ventilators, and by 20% for less immediately critical patients needing oxygen.

Peter Horby, the academic leading the trial, told a Downing Street press conference, “what we saw was really quite remarkable.”

Standing by his side, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lauded the trial, hailing it as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in treating COVID-19.

“I am proud of these British scientists, backed by UK government funding, who have led the first, robust clinical trial anywhere in the world to find a coronavirus treatment proven to reduce the risk of death,” Horby said. Johnson added, “we have taken steps to ensure we have enough supplies, even in the event of a second peak.”

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty attending a…
Britain’s Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty attends a remote press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on June 10, 2020.

The country’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said it is “the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far.” Scientists across the globe have been racing to find treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has sickened more than 8 million people and killed more than 430,000.

Dexamethasone is a generic steroid that’s been used for 60 years to reduce inflammation from a range of other conditions, including arthritis and asthma. It is low-cost — in many parts of the world costing just a dollar for a dosage course. Oxford University scientists tested it as part of a collective effort across the world by commercial labs, pharmaceutical companies and universities to existing drugs to see if any can work for the coronavirus.

It is “the only drug that’s so far shown to reduce mortality — and it reduces it significantly,” said Horby.

Martin Landray, a colleague, said: “It will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost.”

In the Oxford’s study 2,104 patients were given the drug and 4,321 weren’t with the outcomes being compared. The university enrolled over 11,500 patients overall to test existing drugs, making it by far the biggest clinical trial in the world.

The scientists said for patients on mechanical ventilation, it can reduce the risk of death from 40% to 28%. And for those being given supplemental needing oxygen, it can reduce fatalities from 25 to 20%. The Oxford scientists say if dexamethasone had been used sooner in Britain, it could have saved about 5,000 of the more than 40,000 Britons who so far have died of COVID-19.

They say hospital patients should be given it without delay but cautioned it doesn’t seem to help people with milder coronavirus symptoms and who are not having breathing problems.

“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 Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases and global health.

The only other drug proven so far to show some benefits with severely ill patients is remdesivir, an anti-viral drug created to fight Ebola, which can reduce the duration of bad coronavirus symptoms from 15 to 11 days.

Oxford’s findings have not yet been peer-reviewed and the researchers are “now working to publish the full details as soon as possible.”


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