A trial led by Oxford University has discovered that dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, can help reduce deaths in seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

The drug reduced the risk of death by one-third for patients on ventilators and by one-fifth for patients on oxygen.

Oxford University says: “Based on these results, 1 death would be prevented by treatment of around 8 ventilated patients or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone.”

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has described it as “the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far”.

The British government has immediately authorised use of the drug in the NHS, saying “thousands of lives will be saved”. The government has secured supplies of dexamethasone in the UK, meaning there is already treatment for over 200,000 people.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said this is “a remarkable British scientific achievement” and that the government “have taken steps to ensure we have enough supplies, even in the event of a second peak”.

It was discovered as part of the RECOVERY trial, the Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy, which has involved over 11,500 patients at over 175 NHS hospitals in the UK.  

About 2000 hospital patients were given 6mg of dexamethasone per day and compared with more than 4,000 who were not.

For patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 41% to 28%. For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25% to 20%.

The drug costs £5.40 per day and treatment takes up to 10 days. Professor Martin Landray, one of the Chief Investigators, has said: “So essentially it costs £35 to save a life.”

Chief investigator Peter Horby has 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.”

The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “This is tremendous news today from the RECOVERY trial showing that dexamethasone is the first drug to reduce mortality from COVID-19. It is particularly exciting as this is an inexpensive widely available medicine. This is a ground-breaking development in our fight against the disease, and the speed at which researchers have progressed finding an effective treatment is truly remarkable. It shows the importance of doing high quality clinical trials and basing decisions on the results of those trials.”

Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine and one of the Chief Investigators for the trial, said: “Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result. 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. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

Martin Landray, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, one of the Chief Investigators, said: “Since the appearance of COVID-19 six months ago, the search has been on for treatments that can improve survival, particularly in the sickest patients. These preliminary results from the RECOVERY trial are very clear – dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications. COVID-19 is a global disease – it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide.”

Image credit to Pixabay.