LONDON: A common steroid drug has been found to reduce coronavirus death rates by a third for patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for patients needing oxygen.
Dexamethasone has been around for roughly 60 years and is normally used to treat a range of inflammation issues, but tests at Oxford University have now uncovered its effectiveness in treating COVID-19.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Prof. Chris Whitty said the discovery is “the most important trial result for COVID-19 so far.”
Key to the importance of the discovery is the drug’s low cost. Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor who is co-leading the trial, said: “It costs in the order of £5 ($6.31) … for a complete course of treatment in the NHS (National Health Service), and substantially less — probably less than $1 — in other parts of the world, for example in India. It is a major breakthrough.”
The discovery comes as other scientists study the effects of the disease on the body. One such area is the impact on patients’ lungs.
A professor of cardiovascular science told the UK Parliament on Tuesday that COVID-19 can leave the lungs of people who die from it completely unrecognizable.
Prof. Mauro Giacca of King’s College London said COVID-19 can create such massive damage to the lungs that it results in “complete disruption of the lung architecture.”
Giacca studied the autopsies of patients who died in Italy after 30-40 days in intensive care, and said he discovered large amounts of the virus persisting in lungs as well as highly unusual fused cells. His findings, he said, showed the potential for “real problems” after survival.
“What you find in the lungs of people who have stayed with the disease for more than a month before dying is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the SARS virus,” he added.
“There is a complete disruption of the lung architecture — in some lights you can’t even distinguish that it used to be a lung.”
Giacca was providing evidence to Parliament half a year after the virus first emerged in Europe, as governments continue to grapple with the nature of the disease, as well as its treatments, vaccines and effective policy responses.
Despite advances in treatments and understanding, the race to develop and quickly distribute a vaccine remains of primary importance for governments.
Countries have been pouring huge sums of money into pre-emptive vaccine deals to ensure that they can access the inoculations as soon as they are available and safe.
One of the leading vaccines is being developed by Oxford University in partnership with British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
The company announced on Tuesday that it expects its vaccine to provide protection from the disease “for about a year,” and that the first doses should be available in October after clinical trials conclude in September.
The US signed a deal in May worth £940 million with AstraZeneca to provide the country with 300 million doses.
Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy struck a joint £662.5 million deal over the weekend for 300 million doses.
Excluded from the European deal, the UK, which has invested over £65 million in the Oxford vaccine, has said it will be the first to access the inoculation.
But while rich countries use their wealth to guarantee first access, experts fear that poorer countries could be left behind.
Kalipso Chalkidou, director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development, said: “There’s no way we will produce 5 billion doses of a new vaccine within a month, so there’s going to be staggered production.”
She added: “The question is how likely is it that a European or US company will take a few million doses for frontline health workers and people at higher risk and give the rest to everyone else before waiting their turn for the next batch to then vaccinate others? That won’t happen.”