The World Health Organization (WHO) has embraced the results of a steroid drug hailed as 'breakthrough' for seriously ill coronavirus patients.
This is after trial results announced on Tuesday, showed that a cheap and widely-used steroid called dexamethasone has become the first drug shown to be able to save lives among Covid-19 patients, in what scientists said is a "major breakthrough" in the ongoing pandemic.
The preliminary results from the United Kingdom (UK), which have not been peer-reviewed, suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the disease, the researchers who led the trials said.
Dexamethasone (also known as dexamed), is a steroid that has been used since the 1960s. It is usually used to reduce inflammation in treating diseases such as arthritis. Researchers say it reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill Covid-19 patients admitted to hospitals. It has been listed on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in multiple formulations, and is currently off-patent and affordably available in most countries.
“Dexamethasone is an essential medicine listed in Kenya under the Kenya Essential Medicines List 2019 and has been used previously to manage various cases. It is also used for supportive management of Covid-19,” Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth said on his weekly Twitter chats.
For patients on ventilators, the treatment has shown to reduce mortality by about one third, and for patients requiring only oxygen, mortality was cut by about one fifth, according to preliminary findings shared with WHO.
“This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with Covid-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
In the trial, the drug was found to reduce death rates by around a third among the most severely ill of Covid-19 patients admitted to the hospital. The researchers said they would work to publish the full details of the trial as soon as possible, with some scientists saying they wished to review the evidence for themselves. The benefit was only seen in patients seriously ill with Covid-19, and was not observed in patients with milder disease.
Of the 548 active Covid-19 patients, five are currently critically ill and admitted across different Intensive Care Units (ICUs) in the country, Dr Amoth said.
“This is a (trial) result that shows that if patients who have Covid-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” said Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial, known as the Recovery Trial.
The UK's Health ministry wasted no time in acting on the findings, saying the drug had been approved for use in the state-run health service, export restrictions had been introduced, and the UK had stockpiled 200,000 courses of the treatment.
"It's going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than 50 pounds (Sh6,700), you can treat eight patients and save a life," Prof Landray said in an online briefing.
The WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in Covid-19.
“The researchers shared initial insights about the results of the trial with WHO, and we are looking forward to the full data analysis in the coming days. WHO will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention,” added Dr Tedros.
So far, no treatment for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 431,000 people globally, has been shown to reduce the mortality of the disease, although Gilead Sciences Inc’s (GILD.O) remdesivir shortened the recovery time for hospital patients.