In the race to find effective treatments for COVID-19, a team at the University of Oxford has found that a low-cost — or as one BBC commentator put it "cheap-as-chips" — steroid called dexamethasone has proven to reduce deaths by a third among patients on ventilators.
While our president has been touting the use of an unproven malaria drug that he allegedly took himself for ten days for no apparent reason, authorities in the UK have been stockpiling dexamethasone after believing it showed early promise in treating severely ill COVID-19 patients. And now, as the BBC reports, the Oxford team is releasing their "major breakthrough" about the drug via the initial results of a study of 6,000 COVID patients. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it "a remarkable British scientific achievement."
The study involved giving 2,100 COVID patients low doses of dexamethasone and comparing them with 4,300 patients who were not given the drug. It concluded that the treatment lowered the chance of death for patients on ventilators from 40 percent to 28 percent, and it lowered the chance of death for patients on oxygen from 25 to 20 percent. And while other studies, like one of the antiviral drug remdesivir, have shown that the treatment reduces hospital stay lengths for the severely ill, this is the first study to find a treatment that definitively reduces mortality from the disease.
The study team believes that the steroid reduces the damage inflicted on the body by "cytokine storms" that occur in some severely ill patients.
Peter Horby, one of the study's leads and a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, said in a statement that dexamethasone should now become the standard of care for the severely ill. "The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment," Hornby says.
The researchers estimate that if the drug had been in use from the start of the pandemic in the UK, some 5,000 lives could have been saved. And the cost of the drug — a little over $6 per patient for a 10-day course — means that this could have a meaningful impact for poorer countries as the pandemic spreads.
"This is the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far," says England's chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty on Twitter. "Significant reduction in mortality in those requiring oxygen or ventilation from a widely available, safe and well known drug. Many thanks to those who took part and made it happen. It will save lives around the world."
Dexamethasone is one of five drugs, along with convalescent plasma therapy, that is part of this large study effort by Oxford and the UK's National Health Service to examine potential treatments for COVID-19 through randomized trials. The other drugs being studied are the HIV treatment cocktail lopinavir-ritonavir, the common antibiotic azithromycin, the anti-inflammatory tocilizumab, and Trump's favorite malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine.
Additionally, a team at UCSF previously identified a collection of existing drugs and compounds that appear, in lab settings, to have potential as treatments for the virus as well. Those include the schizophrenia drug haloperidol, a.k.a. Haldol; cloperastine, a common cough suppressant; and clemastine, a common antihistamine used to treat hay fever. All of those treatments remain unproven in clinical trials.