Low-cost drug may improve survival rate of COVID-19 patients on ventilators

Dexamethasone reduced deaths in patients getting ventilation treatment by one-third, according to University of Oxford scientists.

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A common steroid can help some coronavirus patients, scientists say.

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Scientists at the University of Oxford in the UK believe they've found a low-cost, common drug significantly reduced coronavirus-related deaths in a 6,000-patient trial. Researchers said in a press release Tuesday that a trial of dexamethasone, a steroid, cut down deaths in patients receiving ventilation by one-third. In patients getting oxygen treatment, it reduced deaths by one-fifth.

Researchers said the drug didn't appear to help patients who aren't receiving respiratory support for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Other public health officials have urged caution because the results came via a press blast, rather than via peer-reviewed journal. "It is unacceptable to tout study results by press release without releasing the paper," Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, tweeted on Tuesday. Further scrutiny of the data is required, and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Britain's National Health Service will work the drug into its standard COVID-19 treatment starting Tuesday.

The dexamethasone trial is part of the UK's "Recovery" trial, which is evaluating six coronavirus treatment options in a suite of randomized, controlled trials. Recruitment for the dexamethasone treatment arm was halted on June 8 after enrolling 2,104 patients to receive the treatment. This trial group was compared with 4,321 patients who received only standard care.

Peter Horby, one of the lead researchers in the trial, said "dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19."

"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," he said in a release. "Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide." The UK government has 200,000 doses available now, after stockpiling it for months.

The World Health Organization welcomed the preliminary results and announced it's looking forward to the full data analysis "in the coming days." Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, called it a "lifesaving scientific breakthrough."

The potential breakthrough comes as more than 8 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed globally, according to tracking numbers from Johns Hopkins University, and less than a week since US cases topped 2 million. As of Tuesday morning, more than 437,000 people have died globally, including over 116,000 in the US. 

A vaccine may not arrive until 2021.

Fighting coronavirus: COVID-19 tests, vaccine research, masks, ventilators and more

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If you're concerned that you might have contracted the coronavirus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists symptoms to help you decide whether to get a test. 

You may have coronavirus if you're suffering from either of these two symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

You could also be infected if you have two of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

Here's how to find a coronavirus testing site near you and how the disease can affect children.

Watch this: Testing the accuracy of coronavirus antibody tests
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.