The World Health Organisation (WHO), on Tuesday, welcomed the initial clinical trial results from the United Kingdom (UK) that showed dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, can help save patients who are critically ill with coronavirus (COVID-19).
The health agency said the treatment was shown to reduce mortality by about one third for patients on ventilators while mortality was cut by about one-fifth for patients requiring only oxygen.
The preliminary findings of the study had been shared with WHO.
Dexamethasone has been used since early 1960 to treat a wide range of conditions such as arthritis, blood/hormone/immune system disorders, allergic reactions, certain skin and eye conditions, breathing problems, certain bowel disorders, and certain cancers.
It is also used as a test for an adrenal gland disorder (Cushing’s syndrome).
It has been listed on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in multiple formulations, and is currently off-patent and affordably available in most countries.
According to WHO, the benefit was only seen in patients seriously ill with COVID-19, and was not observed in patients with milder conditions.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said “this is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support.
“This is great news and I congratulate the Government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients in the UK who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough.”
WHO acknowledged that the researchers shared initial insights about the results of the trial with the agency, “and they are looking forward to the full data analysis in the coming days”.
WHO said it will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase an overall understanding of this intervention.
WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in COVID-19.
The news builds on the WHO Research & Development Blueprint meeting, which took place in Geneva in mid-February to accelerate health technologies for COVID-19, where further research into the use of steroids was highlighted as a priority.
The findings reinforce the importance of large randomised control trials that produce actionable evidence.
WHO said it will continue to work together with all partners to further develop lifesaving therapeutics and vaccines to tackle COVID-19 including under the umbrella of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.
The study found that Dexamethasone, a cheap and widely available drug, can help save the lives of patients seriously ill with coronavirus.
The result of the trial is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus, UK experts have said.
The drug is part of the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments to see if they also work for coronavirus.
Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, many researches have been ongoing to get an effective drug and vaccines which would be useful in combating the spread of the disease.
The result from the UK study showed that Dexamethasone cuts the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.
If the results are accurate and acceptable, it could be of huge benefit to the world as the virus has infected over 8 million people and killed over 440,000.
The BBC reported that in the trial, led by a team from Oxford University, about 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone and compared with more than 4,000 who were not.
For patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 40 per cent to 28 per cent . For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25 per cent to 20 per cent .
However, dexamethasone does not appear to help people with milder symptoms of coronavirus who do not need help with their breathing
Chief investigator, Peter Horby said “this is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality- and it reduces it significantly. It’s a major breakthrough.”
Also, the lead researcher, Martin Landray, said the findings suggested one life could be saved “for every eight patients on a ventilator, every 20-25 treated with oxygen. There is a clear, clear benefit”.
“The treatment is up to 10 days of dexamethasone and it costs about £5,” he added. “So essentially it costs (about) £35 to save a life. This is a drug that is globally available. When appropriate, hospital patients should now be given it without delay,” he said.
People were, however, advised not to abuse or use the drug without proper doctor’s prescription.