Trial results show dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in diseases such as arthritis, reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.
Tuesday’s preliminary results, which have not been peer-reviewed, suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease, the researchers said.
They said they would work to publish the full details of the trial as soon as possible.
Some scientists said they wished to review the evidence for themselves.
Britain’s health ministry wasted no time, saying the drug had been approved for use in the state-run health service, export restrictions had been introduced and 200,000 courses of the treatment had been stockpiled.
Oxford University professor and trial co-leader Martin Landray said dexamethasone would save lives.
“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,” he said.
“It’s going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than STG50 pounds ($90), you can treat eight patients and save a life.”
Co-lead investigator Peter Horby called dexamethasone “a major breakthrough”.
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 people globally.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Tuesday’s announcement was “the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far”.
The RECOVERY trial compared outcomes of around 2100 patients who were randomly assigned to get the steroid, with those of around 4300 patients who did not get it.
University of Birmingham honorary professor of clinical pharmacology Robin Ferner called for more details.
“We hope the data on which these results are based will be published as soon as possible so that doctors can confidently put the treatment into practice,” Ferner said.
The results suggest one death would be prevented by treatment with dexamethasone in every eight ventilated COVID-19 patients, Landray said.
One death would be prevented in every 25 COVID-19 patients that received the drug and were on oxygen.
New York doctor Thomas McGinn said physicians at Northwell hospitals have been using steroids on a case-by-case basis because they can suppress patients’ immune systems and possibly make them susceptible to other infections.
He said if the data is peer-reviewed and legitimised, it could spread the use of steroids in the sickest COVID-19 patients.
“Across the country now intensivists have been using it based on their judgement calls. If this is legitimate, you may find … instead of say five out of 10 intensive-care COVID patients getting it, maybe everybody would get it,” McGinn said.
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