University of Oxford scientists said on Tuesday that a cheap, common steroid reduced deaths in patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
Scientists said dexamethasone reduced the deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third and the deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
The drug would be the first medication shown to reduce mortality in severely ill COVID-19 patients if further studies can duplicate the results. The researchers estimated that as many as 5,000 deaths in Britain could have been prevented had doctors been using dexamethasone from the beginning of the pandemic.
Severe cases of COVID-19 often involve cytokine release syndrome, sometimes referred to as “cytokine storm.” This is essentially an overreaction by the immune system which causes a runaway inflammation response which can be fatal. Dexamethasone appears to reduce the inflammation caused by cytokine release syndrome.
The news was celebrated by doctors since hospitals have no real options for treating the most critically-ill COVID-19 patients.
“Assuming that when it goes through peer review it stands — and these are well-established researchers — it’s a huge breakthrough, a major breakthrough,” said New York University’s Dr. Sam Parnia. “I cannot emphasize how important this could be.”
“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in Covid-19,” said Oxford’s Peter Horby. “The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment.”
Horby said dexamethasone should become the “standard of care in these patients” since it is cheap, common and can be used immediately.
The drug was not beneficial to patients who did not require oxygen or a ventilator.
Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said National Health Service doctors were already able to start using dexamethasone as the standard treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Tuesday afternoon. Dexamethasone costs less than $1 per day for treatment of a single patient.
Britain’s government began stockpiling the drug many months ago because of signs it could help COVID-19 patients, and now has over 200,000 doses available, according to Hancock.
New York University’s Dr. Jose Scher said the medication may be a “major breakthrough,” but cautioned that the data has not yet been published in its entirety.
“It has to be published and peer reviewed, but if it is in fact true, this is a major breakthrough,” Scher said. However, he said “all these communications, without the actual data, should be taken with caution.”