The inexpensive steroid dexamethasone is the first drug known to reduce risk of death in Covid-19 patients, British researchers announced Tuesday.
The medicine cut deaths by up to a third in coronavirus patients on ventilators and cut deaths by one-fifth in patients on oxygen, according to data from a trial run by scientists at Oxford University. The trial randomly assigned 2,104 patients to receive dexamethasone and compared their outcomes to those of 4,321 patients who received standard care.
Dexamethasone, widely used to treat inflammation since it was first approved by the FDA in 1958, helps reduce inflammation that develops when the body overreacts to the virus. There is no evidence the drug helps mildly ill patients, but in those on ventilators — more than half of whom die, according to recent studies — the impact would be significant.
U.K. officials heralded the results, which have not yet been peer reviewed, as a breakthrough in the pandemic that has killed more than 430,000 people worldwide as of Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“This is a ground-breaking development in our fight against the disease,” said the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, in a statement, adding that it is “particularly exciting as this is an inexpensive widely available medicine.”
Dexamethasone is sold by a range of generic drug companies for as low as $8 for 30 tablets in the U.S., according to GoodRx.
The drug would be the first known to reduce deaths in Covid-19 patients. Another medicine, Gilead’s remdesivir, shortened recovery time in randomized trials.
Dexamethasone is part of the RECOVERY trial, one of the largest in the world exploring potential coronavirus treatments. Lead researchers a week earlier announced that the hydroxychloroquine arm of the trial indicated the drug had no effect treating hospitalized Covid-19 patients.
The survival benefit from dexamethasone is clear enough that the medicine should become standard of care for patients sick enough to need oxygen, said chief investigator Peter Horby, an Oxford University professor of emerging infectious diseases.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb also applauded the news in a CNBC Squawk Box interview Tuesday morning. “This is an important finding,” he said.