Researchers in the UK have become the first in the world to find a treatment for Covid-19 that has been proven to save lives.
Just a low dose of the steroid dexamethasone was shown to reduce death by up to one-third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications caused by the virus.
“This astounding breakthrough is testament to the incredible work being done by our scientists behind the scenes”
The medication is cheap, widely available and is already used to reduce inflammation in a range of other conditions.
It has immediately been approved by the government for use in the NHS for all UK hospitalised Covid-19 patients requiring oxygen, including those on ventilators.
The discovery by researchers at the University of Oxford has been hailed a “ground-breaking development in our fight against the disease”.
The drug was tested as part of the government-funded RECOVERY (Randomised Evaluation of COVid-19 thERapY) trial, which was established in March 2020 to look at a range of potential treatments.
The trial saw 2,104 patients from NHS hospitals across the UK randomly selected to receive dexamethasone 6mg once per day, either by mouth or by intravenous injection, for 10 days.
Their outcomes were compared with those of 4,321 patients who received usual care.
Among the patients who received usual care alone, 28-day mortality was highest in those who required ventilation (41%), intermediate in those patients who required oxygen only (25%), and lowest among those who did not require any respiratory intervention (13%).
Dexamethasone was found to reduce deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving oxygen only.
There was no benefit among those patients who did not require respiratory support.
“Based on these results, one death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone,” said the scientists behind the trial.
“Given the public health importance of these results, we are now working to publish the full details as soon as possible.”
“It is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide”
The government bought additional stocks of dexamethasone ahead of time in anticipation of a positive trial result, securing a stockpile enough to treat 200,000 people.
The drug has also been added to the government’s parallel export list, which bans companies from buying medicines meant for UK patients and selling them on for a higher price in another country.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that today we can announce the world’s first successful clinical trial for a treatment for Covid-19.
“This astounding breakthrough is testament to the incredible work being done by our scientists behind the scenes.
“From today the standard treatment for Covid-19 will include dexamethasone, helping save thousands of lives while we deal with this terrible virus.”
Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, one of the chief investigators on the trial, said: “These preliminary results from the RECOVERY trial are very clear – dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications.
“Covid-19 is a global disease – it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide.”
The UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, added: “This is a ground-breaking development in our fight against the disease, and the speed at which researchers have progressed finding an effective treatment is truly remarkable.
“It shows the importance of doing high quality clinical trials and basing decisions on the results of those trials.”