What is dexamethasone? Drug hailed as ‘lifesaver’ for COVID-19 patients

It’s understood that dexamethasone is the first treatment proven to cut the risk of death from COVID-19 – and it’s a cheap drug to produce.

The steroid dexamethasone has been found to reduce the risk deaths in serious coronavirus cases by a third, according to trial results hailed on Tuesday as a “major breakthrough”. Researchers led by a team from the University of Oxford administered the widely available drug to more than 2 000 severely ill COVID-19 patients.

What is dexamethasone, and how does it work?

Among those who could only breathe with the help of a ventilator, dexamethasone reduced deaths by 35%, and by one-fifth in other patients receiving oxygen only, according to preliminary results.

Normally used to treat a range of allergic reactions as well as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, dexamethasone is an anti-inflammatory. Daily doses of the steroid could prevent one in eight ventilated patient deaths and save one out of every 25 patients requiring oxygen alone, the team said.

The trial included a control group of 4,000 patients who did not receive the treatment. Peter Horby, professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, stated:

“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

UK scientists discover ‘major COVID-19 breakthrough’

The trial results are particularly promising as around 40% of COVID-19 patients who require a ventilator end up dying, often because of the body’s uncontrolled inflammatory response to the virus. Nick Cammack, COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Lead at the Wellcome Trust health charity, said:

“This is a major breakthrough: dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for COVID-19. Potentially preventing one death in every eight ventilated patients would be remarkable.”

Other drug trials for coronavirus

The trial showed dexamethasone to be ineffective in treating patients with milder forms of COVID-19, however. A number of existing drugs have been trialed as a treatment against the novel coronavirus, with mixed results.

Trials of treatment of anti-arthritis drug hydroxychloroquine were halted in several countries after a major study in The Lancet medical journal suggested it showed no benefit among COVID-19 patients and even increased the risk of death. That study has since been retracted.

Remdesivir, an anti-viral that appears to reduce the length of treatment in some patients, is already being used in Britain, but one study in April showed it had “no clinical benefit”.

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