Dexamethasone: What is the new life-saving coronavirus drug?

Matt Mathers
·3-min read
Related video: Coronavirus in numbers (AFP/Getty)
Related video: Coronavirus in numbers (AFP/Getty)

US president Donald Trump has been treated with the drug dexamethasone after testing positive for coronavirus, his doctor has confirmed.

But what is it, how is it administered, and will it be administered to all patients?

Researchers announced in June that the dexamethasone educed the risk of death among ventilated Covid-19 patients by around 33 per cent.

A team of scientists working on the Recovery Trial at Oxford University found that it was also successful in treating patients receiving oxygen, reducing deaths by up to 20 per cent.

Chief investigator Prof Peter Horby described the findings as a “major breakthrough”, saying dexamethasone was the only drug so far that has been “shown to reduce mortality” among coronavirus patients experiencing severe respiratory problems.

What is dexamethasone?

Dexamethasone is a type of corticosteroid (steroid) medication first used as a treatment in the 1960s.

It is mostly used as an anti-inflammatory medicine to treat a range of conditions such as allergies, asthma, eczema and arthritis.

Dexamethasone is also used alone or with other drugs in the UK to prevent or treat conditions related to cancer, such as anaemia, cerebral edema (fluid build-up in the brain) and hypercalcemia (high blood levels of calcium).

How is dexamethasone administered?

Like most other types of steroid, dexamethasone is only available on prescription which means you can not buy it in your local supermarket or chemist.

It comes in a tablet form although dissolvable, liquid and syrup versions are available too.

During the clinical trial, scientists at Oxford University administered 6mg of dexamethasone to more than 2,000 patients each day for 10 days.

The patients were given the drug orally or by intravenous injection, with the results showing improved outcomes for Covid-19 patients with breathing problems.

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

Researchers also estimate that if dexamethasone had to be used to treat coronavirus patients throughout the pandemic up to 5,000 lives could have been saved.

Will dexamethasone be used to treat all Covid-19 patients?

Dexamethasone is already used to treat a number of conditions and it is therefore widely available for hospitals to stock.

It is cheap to make and treatment costs are low.

“There is a clear, clear benefit. The treatment is up to 10 days of dexamethasone and it costs about £5 per patient,” Prof Horby added.

“So essentially it costs £35 to save a life. This is a drug that is globally available.”

Experts hope the findings will be a major breakthrough in treating patients across the world.

“Covid-19 is a global disease – it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide,” Martin Landray, one of the study’s lead investigators, said.

Prof Landray added that, when appropriate, hospital patients should now be given it without delay, but people should not go out and buy it to take at home.

The trial showed that the drug was ineffective in helping Covid-19 patients that didn’t have respiratory problems.

According to NHS England, if you experience any coronavirus symptoms such as a high temperature, a new and continuous cough or a loss of taste and smell, you should contact 111 for further advice.

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