New COVID-19 drug study reveals affordable coronavirus treatment

A potential COVID-19 treatment is delivering promising results in clinical trials, with dexamethasone helping cut deaths in cases of severe respiratory complications. The potential of the drug, a low-cost steroid usually used to treat inflammation, was described as "a ground-breaking development" in treating coronavirus by the UK Government's Chief Scientific Advisor.

The dexamethasone tests were carried out in the UK as part of the RECOVERY trial, which sought to explore a range of potential COVID-19 treatments. Of the more than 11,500 patients enrolled overall, 2,104 were randomized to the dexamethasone study.

They got 6mg of the drug per day, either by mouth or through intravenous injection, for a ten day period. The control group was 4,321 patients getting the standard care.

In ventilated patients, the drug reduced deaths by a third. For those receiving oxygen only, dexamethasone cut deaths by one fifth. Those with COVID-19 who didn't require respiratory intervention showed no benefit from the steroid.

It's a significant finding, and one which both the RECOVERY team and the US government are hailing as a big step forward. Part of the advantage of dexamethasone is its affordability. In the US the average retail price is under $50, but patients – who must be prescribed the drug – can pay as little as $8 for a course of treatment.

"Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19," Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, and one of the Chief Investigators for the trial, said of the findings. "This is an extremely welcome result. 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. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide."

If these results pan out more broadly, it's suggested, one death in 8 could be prevented through dexamethasone treatment for ventilated patients. One death in 25 patients requiring oxygen alone could be avoided.

"Since the appearance of COVID-19 six months ago, the search has been on for treatments that can improve survival, particularly in the sickest patients," Martin Landray, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, one of the Chief Investigators, said of the study. "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 team is now working on preparing the results for publishing.