The drug is cheap and widely available, meaning it can be rolled out quickly to poorer communities hit by the disease.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the newsletter Briefings on Accreditation & Quality. Briefings on Accreditation & Quality is published through the HCPro Accreditation & Quality Compliance Center.
Researchers from Oxford University announced that the drug dexamethasone can cut the death rate for COVID-19 patients on ventilators by a third and patients on oxygen by a fifth. Their research suggests that up to 5,000 of the 41,736 coronavirus deaths in the United Kingdom could have been prevented had this drug been used at the start of the outbreak.
Dexamethasone is a steroid that has been used since the 1960s to reduce inflammation and is given to asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients. While not a coronavirus cure, dexamethasone works by limiting the damage done to the body by its immune system, which can end up hurting the host as it tries to destroy the disease.
The drug is cheap and widely available, meaning it can be rolled out quickly to poorer communities hit by the disease. The results show that one death out of eight would be prevented for ventilated patients, or one out of 25 for patients requiring oxygen alone.
"There is a clear, clear benefit. The treatment is up to 10 days of dexamethasone and it costs about £5 [$6.31 USD] per patient. So essentially it costs £35 [$44.14 USD] to save a life. This is a drug that is globally available," lead researcher Prof Martin Landray told BBC News.
"This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality - and it reduces it significantly. It's a major breakthrough," chief investigator Prof Peter Horby told BBC News.
This discovery came about through the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments against coronavirus. The study included over 6,000 patients—2,000 given dexamethasone and 4,000 control patients.
Brian Ward is an associate editor for HCPro who writes about hospital accreditation and patient safety.