Scientists in the UK have discovered a cheap and available treatment for COVID-19 patients.

They have described the use of common steroid drug dexamethasone as a “major breakthrough”. The drug reduced death rates by a third for patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for patients needing oxygen. England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said it was “the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far”. The findings have been published from the Recovery trial which is assessing a number of different possible coronavirus treatments. It is thought the drug could have saved between 4,000 to 5,000 lives if it had been used earlier in the pandemic.

Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor who is co-leading the trial, said: “This is a result that shows that if patients who have COVID-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost.

“It’s been around for probably 60 years.

“It costs in the order of £5… for a complete course of treatment in the NHS, and substantially less – probably less than one dollar – in other parts of the world, for example in India.”

Co-lead investigator, Peter Horby, said dexamethasone – a generic steroid widely used in other diseases to reduce inflammation – is “the only drug that’s so far shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly”.

“It is a major breakthrough,” he said.

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19.

More than 11,500 patients from 175 NHS hospitals have been enrolled on the Recovery trial since it was set up in March to test a range of potential coronavirus treatments.

In the dexamethasone study, 2,104 patients received 6mg of dexamethasone once a day by mouth or intravenous injection for 10 days.

Their outcomes were compared with a control group of 4,321 patients.

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