A cheap, common steroid improves survival rates for COVID-19 patients on ventilators, according to a press release from the research team. The drug, called dexamethasone, reduced deaths by one-third in patients on ventilators, and by one-fifth in patients who needed supplemental oxygen, according to the team. It did not help patients who were able to breathe on their own.
Steroids like dexamethasone blunt inflammation in the body. Researchers think that some patients with severe cases of COVID-19 have dangerously high levels of inflammation as part of an overactive immune response to the virus and that calming that down with an anti-inflammatory like dexamethasone could help ease their symptoms. That’s also why people shouldn’t take this drug to try to prevent COVID-19: it suppresses the immune system and could make it harder to fight off the virus. Researchers think the drug helps when someone’s illness gets severe enough that inflammation is more dangerous than the virus itself.
Dexamethasone was tested as part of the RECOVERY trial at the University of Oxford. Unlike some of the early data on drugs like hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, this data came from a randomized, controlled clinical trial: the team gave the drug to 2,104 patients and compared them to 4,321 other patients who were treated without it. The patients on ventilators or oxygen in the group that received the drug were more likely to survive than those who did not, according to the released data.
“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 and a chief investigator on the trial, said in a statement. “The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment.”
The drug is inexpensive and widely available, so it could be immediately accessible to patients.
The team behind the study announced these findings through a press release, instead of waiting until they had a formal paper that could be closely examined by other scientists. It’s unusual for scientists to announce results this way, and it makes it harder to confirm that the details of an analysis match up with the promoted findings.
During this pandemic, though, the practice is becoming more common: early data on the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir and a vaccine candidate from the pharmaceutical company Moderna were pushed out through press releases before the full details were available, for example. That concerns some scientists — in the past few months, some high-profile claims have turned out to be misleading.
The research team said that they are working to get the full details ready for publication “as soon as possible.”