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Cheap drug could help save lives from coronavirus, early study results show

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An affordable steroid, dexamethasone, might be the first drug proven to improve survival of those with COVID-19, researchers in the U.K. say.

A research team from the University of Oxford announced the results in a press release Tuesday, though full results have not yet been published.

In a trial of 2,104 patients who received either low-dose dexamethasone or usual care, dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in patients who required ventilation and one-fifth in patients who required supplemental oxygen.

The researchers found no effect among patients who did not require respiratory support.

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“Based on these results, one death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone,” the researchers wrote in their statement.

“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result,” chief investigator Peter Horby, an emerging infectious diseases professor at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

“The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

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Dr. Matthew Pellan Cheng, an infectious disease researcher at the McGill University Health Centre and assistant professor at the McGill Department of Medicine, said he is “thrilled” by the results.

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“That is the first time since the onset of the pandemic that a drug has been shown to increase the chances of survival. And in my mind, that makes the news completely game-changing.”

Cheng, who is who is currently working on other drug trials related to COVID-19, said he would like to see the full study so he can examine whether patients experienced any side effects from the drug, as well as have the findings scrutinized by the scientific community. But, he says he is very encouraged by the report.

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“I am confident, at this point, anyway, that we should seriously consider steroids as part of the standard of care for individuals who are hospitalized, who require oxygen therapy or who are mechanically ventilated.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, cautions that the data and study methods will have to be carefully scrutinized before any changes to care are made.

But if the results hold up to scrutiny, it would be a “tremendous win,” he said. “Dexamethasone is a widely available drug. It’s inexpensive. We have a long track record of use with this medication, so we know the side effects.”

Matthew Miller, an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University, also urged caution. “Even the data that was released in the press conference is modest,” he said. “The amount of benefit Dexamethasone had is good, but it’s no magic bullet.”

“There has already been some major issues with early reports about the benefits of Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine. So I do think it’s a little bit irresponsible to tout things like this (Dexamethasone) without making the data openly available so experts can have a really close look at to make sure the excitement is warranted.”

Others are more enthusiastic. Even though the drug only helps in severe cases, “countless lives will be saved globally,” said Nick Cammack of Wellcome, a British charity that supports science research.

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“Dexamethasone must now be rolled out and accessed by thousands of critically ill patients around the world,” said Cammack, who had no role in the study. “It is highly affordable, easy to make, can be scaled up quickly and only needs a small dosage.”

Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid typically used to reduce inflammation, according to information from the Mayo Clinic. It’s used to treat conditions like allergies, asthma, arthritis, kidney problems and flare-ups of multiple sclerosis.

This is the same study that earlier this month showed the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was not working against the coronavirus. The study enrolled more than 11,000 patients in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who were given either standard of care or that plus one of several treatments: dexamethasone, the HIV combo drug lopinavir-ritonavir, the antibiotic azithromycin, the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab or plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 that contains antibodies to fight the virus.

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Cheng notes that no matter how promising the drug might be, it won’t replace preventative measures like washing your hands and staying two metres away from others, and we need to continue working to “flatten the curve” of new cases.

“Just because there is a drug that may improve mortality doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

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For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Dave Woodard and the Associated Press