The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday said the fight against COVID-19 has received a much needed boost following “the recent finding that the steroid dexamethasone has life-saving potential for critically ill COVID-19 patients.”
WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, during a virtual briefing from Geneva, said the next challenge is to increase production “and rapidly and equitably distribute dexamethasone worldwide, focusing on where it is needed most.”
Mr Ghebreyesus said although “the data on it is still preliminary,” the recent finding has given the world a much-needed reason to celebrate.
He said demand has already surged, following the UK trial results showing “dexamethasone’s clear benefit”.
He, however, cautioned that there is no evidence that dexamethasone works for patients who are only mildly affected, or as a preventative measure.
WHO said dexamethasone “should only be used for patients with severe or critical disease, under close clinical supervision.”
“There is no evidence this drug works for patients with mild disease or as a preventative measure, and it could cause harm.
“Fortunately, this is an inexpensive medicine and there are many dexamethasone manufacturers worldwide, who we are confident can accelerate production,” he said.
Glimmer of hope
The drug received a nod from scientists and the international body after a UK-Government funded study showed that the low-cost steroid dexamethasone can save the life of one in eight severely ill patients on ventilators being treated for COVID-19 and of one in 25 patients who are receiving supplemental oxygen.
The study was supported by a grant coordinated by the UK Research and Innovation/National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
The Oxford University researchers, Peter Horby and Martin Landray, who conducted the treatment experiments as part of the large recovery trial, said “steroid dexamethasone has life-saving potential for critically ill patients.”.
In order to effectively combat the virus, Mr Ghebreyesus said countries must be guided by solidarity and work together to ensure supplies are prioritised for countries where there are large numbers of critically ill patients.
He said there is a need for supplies to remain available to treat other diseases for which it is needed.
The WHO chief noted that the steroid was already being produced by many manufacturers globally, and should be made available at an ‘inexpensive’ cost.
“Transparency and constant monitoring will be key to ensuring needs dictate supplies, rather than means.
He said it is also important to check that suppliers can guarantee quality, as there is a high risk of substandard or falsified products entering the market.
In the briefing, the WHO chief, however, noted that the number of new infections was rising sharply even as countries continue to lessen restrictions.
WHO, he said, is also supporting countries with essential supplies of personal protective equipment and laboratory diagnostics.
“It seems that almost every day we reach a new and grim record. Yesterday, (Sunday) more than 183,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported to WHO – easily the most in a single day so far,” he said.
He urged countries to be “careful and creative in finding solutions that enable people to stay safe while getting on with their lives.”