Steroid approved to treat COVID-19 after trial shows it cuts risk of death

The government has approved the use of dexamethasone on all hospitalised COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen, following results from a UK trial showing that it significantly reduced the risk of death in this group.

(Photo: Richard Bailey/Getty Images)
(Photo: Richard Bailey/Getty Images)

Oxford University's RECOVERY trial, which is funded by the UK government, randomised 2,104 patients to receive 6mg of the anti-inflammatory dexamethasone once a day for ten days, while 4,321 patients were randomised to receive usual care.

The researchers found that the drug reduced deaths by up to 35% in patients who were ventilated and by 20% for those receiving oxygen. There was no benefit among patients who did not require respiratory support.

The researchers said that, based on the findings, one death would be prevented by treating around eight ventilated patients or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone.

Standard treatment

The findings of the study are preliminary and have yet to be peer reviewed, but the researchers said that given their significance they were making initial results available now. They added that the drug should become standard treatment in patients with COVID-19 who require oxygen.

This is the first clinical trial to find a treatment that can reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19.

The DHSC said it had bought additional stocks of dexamethasone 'ahead of time' in the event that the trial proved successful. It added that there was enough treatment for over 200,000 patients in the UK from stockpiles alone. The drug has also been addd to the government's parallel export list, which bans companies from buying up medicine in the UK and selling it on in other countries at inflated prices.

Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, 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.’

First successful trial

RECOVERY is an ongoing trial involving 11,500 patients in over 175 hospitals across the UK who have been randomised to one of six treatments or no additional treatment. Last week the researchers revealed that the study had found there was no beneficial effect of hydroxychloroquine in patients hospitalised with COVID-19 and this arm of the trial was stopped.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: 'I’m absolutely delighted that today we can announce the world’s first successful clinical trial for a treatment for COVID-19. This astounding breakthrough is testament to the incredible work being done by our scientists behind the scenes.

'From today the standard treatment for COVID-19 will include dexamethasone, helping save thousands of lives while we deal with this terrible virus.'

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said: 'NHS hospitals, researchers and clinicians have worked together at breakneck speed to test new treatments for COVID-19, and it is amazing to see work that would normally take years bear fruit in just a matter of months.

'This research agility is not only important for coronavirus patients, but augurs well for the streamlined innovation that the NHS and the UK life sciences now must pioneer.'

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