After almost 7 months since the epidemic of SARS-CoV-2 began, more than 8 million people have fallen ill and approximately 450,000 people have died. Every day multiple groups of scientists perform clinical trials in the hope of finding an effective drug or vaccine against the virus.
At the beginning of this week, the United Kingdom government authorized the use of the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone for the treatment of COVID-19 on the National Health Service. This decision was made immediately after the report of positive data from the RECOVERY trial, coordinated by the scientists from Oxford University.
Dexamethasone is a decades-old, inexpensive steroid, which obtained its first approval in 1961. It is used to treat many conditions including rheumatic problems, numerousskin diseases, severe allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive lung diseases, croup, brain swelling and many others.
The RECOVERY trial has been conducted in the UK between March and June. It is one of the world’s biggest randomized, controlled trials for coronavirus treatments. More than 2,100 COVID-19 patients, who were hospitalized and required oxygen, were treated with low or moderate-dose of 6 milligrams of the steroid once daily for 10 days. The results have been compared with 4,321 patients who received the standard care for a coronavirus infection. The drug reduced the risk of death by 35% for patients on ventilators and 20% for those who received oxygen. Furthermore, dexamethasone reduced 28-day morbidity by 17% in the large study. The scientists suggest that at the doses tested, the benefits of steroid treatment may outweigh the potential harm. The RECOVERY trial found no outstanding adverse events from the treatment.
Finally, dexamethasone is much easier to administer to the patients due to its oral dosage form. It is widely available and inexpensive. In contrast, the only drug which has shown benefit to COVID-19 patients, the antiviral drug remdesivir, must be given by injection over the course of several days. In addition, it is available only for a limited number of hospitals around the world, although the drug’s maker – Gilead Sciences has taken steps to ramp up the production of remdesivir.