(CN) — Without a cure for Covid-19 — if not a vaccine or reliable treatment — the world’s wishes to go back to normal remain wistful, but British scientists announced Tuesday the possibility that a commonly prescribed steroid may reduce hospitalized deaths by more than 30%.
The drug dexamethasone, an inexpensive steroid is currently used to treat inflammation from allergies, arthritis and skin conditions.
“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in Covid-19,” Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment.”
Covid-19 has claimed the lives of 41,696 people in the United Kingdom and more than 432,000 people worldwide. The highly infectious respiratory disease is caused by the coronavirus SARS-Cov-2, first detected in the Wuhan province of China last December.
According to research described in a press release by chief investigators of the Randomized Evaluation of Covid-19 therapy trial dubbed Recovery, 6,425 patients hospitalized in 175 hospitals in the United Kingdom between March and early June participated in this study.
Some patients were given 6 mg of dexamethasone daily for 10 days, while others were given the “usual care.”
According to the statement: “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%).”
With a 95% confidence interval, the researchers credit the steroid with reducing the most critical ventilated patients by one-third. The doctors claim: “Based on these results, one death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone.”
In a press conference, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who contracted and survived the disease earlier this year, celebrated the news.
“I am proud of these British scientists, backed by U.K. government funding, who led the first robust clinical trial anywhere in the world to find a coronavirus treatment proven to reduce the risk of death,” Johnson said, adding that he is prepared to make the drug available across the health care system.
Given the pressure to produce medical treatment in record time, many researchers choose to release studies and statements preprint, before undergoing peer review and scrutiny by the rest of the medical community.
Because the project has yet to release the full study and data, some caution against celebrating too soon.
“It will be great news if dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, really does cut deaths by 1/3 in ventilated patients with COVID19, but after all the retractions and walk backs, it is unacceptable to tout study results by press release without releasing the paper,” tweeted Dr. Atul Gawande, founder of Ariadne Labs in Boston.
The University of Oxford did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Other institutions working with Recovery include the U.K. Research and Innovation/National Institute for Health Research, as well as the National Health Service in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Researchers associated with the group are also testing HIV medication lopinavir-ritonavir, the antibiotic azithromycin, anti-inflammatory tocilizumab and convalescent plasma donated from survivors.
Recovery halted testing on hydroxychloroquine “due to lack of efficacy.”