Researchers at the University of Oxford said Tuesday that an inexpensive on the shelf steroid has proven to reduce coronavirus-related deaths significantly in severely ill hospitalized patients needing breathing support.
The steroid, dexamethasone, reduced deaths by a third in patients receiving ventilation, and by a fifth in patients receiving only oxygen treatment, the scientists said. They found no benefit from the drug in patients who didn't need breathing support.
Matt Hancock, the UK's health secretary, said National Health Service doctors would begin treating patients with the drug immediately.
The government started stockpiling dexamethasone several months ago because it was hopeful about the potential of the drug, Hancock said, and now has 200,000 doses on hand.
Dexamethasone has been used since the early 1960s to treat a wide range of conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
"This is an extremely welcome result," one study leader, Peter Horby of the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
"This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality -- and it reduces it significantly. It's a major breakthrough."
"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."
In the trial, led by a team from Oxford, about 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone and compared with more than 4,000 who weren't.
The drug was given intravenously for patients in intensive care and in tablet form for less seriously ill patients.
After 28 days, for patients on ventilators, it cut the risk of death from 40 percent to 28 percent. For patients needing oxygen, it cut the risk of death from 25 percent to 20 percent.
Lead researcher Martin Landray told the BBC that the findings suggested one life could be saved for every eight patients on a ventilator and every 20 to 25 treated with oxygen
He said the treatment is up to 10 days of dexamethasone and it costs about £5 per ($6.28) a patient. "So essentially it costs £35 ($44.01) to save a life. This is a drug that is globally available."
When appropriate, hospital patients should now be given it without delay, Landray said. But people shouldn't go out and buy it to take at home, he added.