Researchers in England say they have the first evidence that a drug can improve COVID-19 survival: A cheap, widely available steroid reduced deaths by up to one third in severely ill hospitalized patients.
The results were announced Tuesday and the British government immediately authorized the drug's use across the United Kingdom for coronavirus patients like those who did well in the study. Researchers said they would publish results soon in a medical journal, and several independent experts said it's important to see details to know how much of a difference the drug, dexamethasone, might make and for whom.
But “bottom line is, good news,” said the United States’ top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. “This is a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have.”
The coronavirus outbreak has killed more than 438,000 people worldwide since it began late last year in China.
The study, led by the University of Oxford, was a large, strict test that randomly assigned 2,104 patients to get the drug and compared them with 4,321 patients getting only usual care.
The drug was given either orally or through an IV for 10 days. After four weeks, it had reduced deaths by 35% in patients who needed treatment with breathing machines and by 20% in those only needing supplemental oxygen. It did not appear to help less ill patients.
Researchers estimated that the drug would prevent one death for every eight patients treated while on breathing machines and one for every 25 patients on extra oxygen alone.
“Those are big effects," said one study leader, Dr. Martin Landray at Oxford. “It’s not a cure, but it’s certainly a long way forward.” It's especially good news that the drug “is remarkably cheap, perhaps $20 or $30 for an entire course of treatment,” he added.