A life-saving treatment for seriously-ill hospital patients with Covid-19 is being used across the UK from today, following breakthrough results in a UK trial.
Dexamethasone – a cheap, widely-available steroid – was shown to reduce deaths among patients on ventilators and on oxygen.
The UK’s chief medical officers say it should be used “with immediate effect”.
And there are no issues with supplies of the medicine in the UK.
In an urgent letter from the UK’s four chief medical officers to clinicians in the NHS, they said dexamethasone had “a clear place in the management of hospitalised patients with Covid-19”.
The drug was tested as part of the world’s biggest trial of existing treatments to see if they also work against coronavirus.
In the trial, led by a team from Oxford University, about 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone and compared with more than 4,000 who were not.
For patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 40% to 28%. For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25% to 20%.
The researchers said this was equivalent to one life being saved for every eight patients on a ventilator or one life being saved for every 20-25 being treated with oxygen.
The drug works on Covid-19 by dampening down the reaction of the body’s immune system to the virus, which can often be more harmful than the virus itself.
Chief investigator Prof Peter Horby said it was “the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly”.
“It’s a major breakthrough,” he added.
However, it should not be used to treat anyone with coronavirus who is not in hospital. Its use is still being studied in children.
Already used to reduce inflammation in a range of other conditions, including arthritis, asthma and some skin conditions, the cost of the drug would be as little as £5 per patient.
The government said it had already bought additional stocks of dexamethasone and now had enough treatment for more than 200,000 people.
The drug is also widely available around the world.