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Editor's note: This story was updated on June 17 to add the World Health Organization's response. 

June 16, 2020 -- Dexamethasone, a low-cost steroid sometimes used for asthma, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, could reduce deaths in hospitalized coronavirus patients with the most severe complications by about a third, according to new study results released Tuesday morning.

The study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and the full data haven’t been published. However, scientists see promise in the results because the drug is widely available and used safely for several diseases. In fact, the World Health Organization late Tuesday announced it was so encouraged by the trial results that it would update its guidance for treating COVID-19 to include the steroid's use. 

In the study, 2,104 patients received 6 mg of the steroid once per day by mouth or injection for 10 days. They were compared with 4,321 patients who had standard care for COVID-19. Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in patients on a ventilator and one-fifth in patients receiving oxygen.

The research team didn’t observe any benefit for patients who didn’t require respiratory support. They’re now working on publishing the full data “as soon as possible,” according to the news release.

“This is an extremely welcome result,” Peter Horby, one of the lead researchers and an infectious disease professor at the University of Oxford, said in the news release. “Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

The study is part of the Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy trial, or RECOVERY, which was created in the UK in March to test a variety of potential treatments. More than 11,500 patients at 175 UK hospitals are enrolled in the trial.

“Since the appearance of COVID-19 six months ago, the search has been on for treatments that can improve survival, particularly in the sickest patients,” Martin Landray, also a lead researcher at the University of Oxford, said in the news release.

After the results were announced Tuesday, outside scientists and researchers expressed a sense of relief but also caution.

Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, called the findings “very positive” and said the steroid could have an “immediate impact” on treatment in ICUs but also said the study needs to be validated, according to a CNBC interview.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, urged careful consideration as well.

“It will be great news if dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, really does cut deaths by one third in ventilated patients with COVID19, but after all the retractions and walk backs, it is unacceptable to tout study results by press release without releasing the paper,” he wrote on Twitter.

Show Sources

Recovery: “Low-cost dexamethasone reduces death by up to one third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications of COVID-19.”

Twitter, @Atul_Gawande, June 16, 2020.

CNBC: “Potentially lifesaving coronavirus treatment dexamethasone could have ‘immediate impact,’ former FDA chief says.”

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