In an interesting turn of events, a cheap and widely used steroid drug called dexamethasone is the first drug that’s been shown to have the ability to save the life of a COVID-19 patient that’s experiencing a severe form of the virus.
This is according to researchers from the RECOVERY trial (UK), which stands for Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy, and is the largest trial in the world that’s testing existing treatments on COVID-19 patients. It involves thousands of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and research administrators at over 175 hospitals across the UK. In other words, it’s BIG!
What is the drug’s impact?
It’s explained that the steroid drug is typically used to reduce inflammation in arthritis patients amongst other things, and the trial revealed that using it in severely ill COVID-19 patients with respiratory complications can reduce the death rate by up to one third.
The statement from the researchers further breaks it down to suggest that it reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients, one fifth in other patients receiving oxygen only, and that no benefits were seen for those who did not need respiratory support.
“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19,” Prof. Peter Horby, one of the chief investigators for the trial, said in a statement.
“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 the standard of care in these patients. [It’s] inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”
Is it easily available in SA?
Even better news is that the drug is available in abundance in South Africa; it’s affordable (with one shot costing around R149) and accessible. In an interview with Business Insider, Stephen Saad, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Aspen, said that he believes that South Africa won’t experience a shortage of this drug and it will be available enough to meet the domestic demand.
“It all depends on where and when we get the surges, [but] we should be fine for South Africa – [especially because] we make this in South Africa,” he told the business news platform.
This treatment is truly an enormous win in the fight against COVID-19 globally.
“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,” Prof. Martin Landray, one of the chief investigators of the study, also said in a statement.
“These preliminary results from the 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.”
What’s been the global response?
In an interview with news network Rueters, Dr Mark Wurfel, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington said that it’s important that the trial data be released and reviewed, but added that this could be the best thing to happen for severely infected COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic.
“This magnitude of improvement in mortality for a critically ill population is about the largest effect size that we’ve ever seen,” he said.
The World Health Organization has also come out to say that as soon as the full data has been released and can be analysed, they will, depending on their own review of the data, move to update their treatment guidelines for COVID-19
“WHO will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention,” the health agency said in statement.
“WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in COVID-19.”
The UK government has already approved the use of dexamethasone and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed it as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the fight against COVID-19.