(Bloomberg) — A low-cost, widely used anti-inflammatory drug improved survival in patients with Covid-19, the first treatment to show life-saving promise months into the pandemic.
Deaths among patients who needed breathing assistance were lower over a period of four weeks when they received the 60-year-old medicine dexamethasone, University of Oxford researchers said Tuesday. The study was stopped early because of its crucial findings.
Doctors and companies are scouring for treatments that can help patients survive the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 440,000 people worldwide. Gilead Sciences Inc.’s antiviral remdesivir, which has approval to treat Covid-19, has only demonstrated the ability to shorten patients’ recovery.
Dexamethasone treatment reduced deaths by a third among patients on ventilators and by a fifth among those receiving oxygen only, the study showed. The benefit was only seen in seriously ill Covid-19 patients, and wasn’t observed in patients with milder disease, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the findings as an endorsement of the country’s scientific and medical prowess, as the government comes under growing scrutiny for its handling of the pandemic. Britain has the highest death toll from the virus in Europe, with about a 10th of the global total of fatalities.
“In truth, U.K. life sciences are leading the world in vaccine development, in the development of treatments and in immunology,” Hancock said in a video message. “But it’s by working together that we’ve been able to bring this result to bear.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also welcomed the breakthrough and said the drug will now be made available across Britain’s National Health Service.
“We have taken steps to ensure we have enough supplies even in the event of a second peak” in coronavirus cases, he said at the U.K.’s daily televised coronavirus briefing. Hancock said the U.K. has stockpiled more than 200,000 courses of dexamethasone after spotting its potential.
The steroid medicine has been available as a generic for decades, and costs 5 pounds ($6) or less for a course of treatment, health officials said. Made by pharma companies including Mylan NV and Merck & Co., it’s used to treat a range of ailments including rheumatism, asthma, allergies and even to help cancer patients better handle the nausea triggered by chemotherapy.
A 10-day course of the medication bought in India to treat Covid-19 would cost about 20 pence (25 cents), according to Andrew Hill, a senior research fellow at the University of Liverpool, who studied the cost of drugs on the WHO list of “essential” medicines in 2018.
“This is a treatment which should be affordable for anyone in need, in any country,” Hill said in an email.
The dexamethasone research was part of a larger study, called Recovery, that compares a number of potential treatments in an attempt to quickly identify those that are most effective. More than 11,500 patients have been enrolled from over 175 National Health Service hospitals across the U.K.
A number of anti-inflammatories are being studied around the world for helping coronavirus patients cope with a powerful overreaction of the immune system, sometimes called a cytokine storm.
Based on the Oxford study results, dexamethasone would prevent one death by treatment of eight ventilated patients, and around one for every 25 patients requiring oxygen alone, the researchers said. There was no benefit among patients who didn’t need breathing support.
“While this study suggests dexamethasone only benefits severe cases, countless lives will be saved globally,” said Nick Cammack, Covid-19 therapeutics accelerator lead at Wellcome, the medical research philanthropy group.
The need for new treatments has been exacerbated as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency-use authorization for two malaria drugs touted by President Donald Trump as Covid-19 treatments this week after determining they were unlikely to work against the virus and could have dangerous side effects. The medications may also interfere with the effectiveness of Gilead’s remdesivir, the agency warned.
The U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency on Tuesday told researchers to suspend recruitment of further participants into trials of one of the antimalarials, hydroxychloroquine, for treatment of Covid-19.