A cheap and widely available drug called dexamethasone can help save the lives of patients who are seriously ill with coronavirus.
UK experts say the low-dose steroid treatment is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus.
It cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.
The drug is part of the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments to see if they also work for coronavirus.
Researchers estimate that if the drug had been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the coronavirus pandemic up to 5,000 lives could have been saved. Because it is cheap, it could also be of huge benefit in poorer countries struggling with high numbers of Covid-19 patients.
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About 19 out of 20 patients with coronavirus recover without being admitted to hospital. Of those who are admitted to hospital, most also recover, but some may need oxygen or mechanical ventilation. These are the high-risk patients whom dexamethasone appears to help.
The drug is already used to reduce inflammation in a range of other conditions, and it appears that it helps stop some of the damage that can happen when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight off coronavirus.
The body’s over-reaction is called a cytokine storm and it can be deadly.
In the trial, led by a team from Oxford University, around 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone and were compared with more than 4,000 who did not receive the drug.
For patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 40% to 28%. For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25% to 20%.
Chief investigator Prof Peter Horby said: “This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly. It’s a major breakthrough.”
Lead researcher Prof Martin Landray says the findings suggest that for every eight patients treated on ventilators, you could save one life.