A new study has found dexamethasone to be an effective treatment for the worst hit sufferers of COVID-19 but what is it and does it work?
Have you heard of this game-changing drug? Are you sick of hearing the words “game-changing?” Of course you have, and of course you are, because today is a day that ends with ‘day’.
Please excuse my dour cynicism but it seems every day we hear about an ‘exciting’ drug already in use for other ailments which can be co-opted for COVID-19 treatments. Then, about a month later, we hear that the drug is actually useless, or worse may actually exacerbate the symptoms à la the hydroxychloroquine fiasco after being touted by the President of the United States himself, Donald J. Trump, multiple times on national television and social media.
It’s almost like there should be some kind of rigorous scientific testing that should be administered before politicians start promoting drugs with pseudoscience. Oh wait… there is.
Like many of the drugs currently in circulation which are being tested for their effectiveness against COVID-19, dexamethasone is a steroid which temporarily reduces the body’s immune system response, and in turn reduces inflammation.
It is the overreaction of the body’s immune system response — known as a hyperactive response — that is believed to cause the worst of the COVID-19 symptoms. This is where our immune system stops specifically targeting and destroying cells infected with the virus and instead targets everything in its path. This can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, and ultimately death.
Remember that rigorous scientific testing I mentioned earlier? Well, dexamethasone has actually shown promising results from a scientific trial including over six thousand participants (now that’s a good sample size!)
The short of it is, 2104 randomised patients were treated with dexamethasone and their mortality rates were compared with 4321 randomised patients who received the usual medical care alone.
The results showed that dexamethasone reduced mortality in patients on ventilators by up to one third, and up to one fifth in patients needing oxygen. No benefit was found for those patients not in need of respiratory support.
If patients had been treated with dexamethasone from the beginning of the outbreak, in the U.K. alone up to 5,000 deaths could have been prevented. At the time of writing, the death toll in the U.K. is around 43,000. In the world, over 475,000 deaths have been recorded so far.
Allow me to shrug off my fervent cynicism for a moment and explain that this time, this is actually exciting news. A solid study, with a large sample size, producing these results is cause for celebration. And what’s more, since dexamethasone was created in 1957, it is out of patent which means companies around the world can make this drug on the cheap.
The U.K. government has confirmed that it has enough dexamethasone stockpiled to treat around 200,000 patients.
Of course, however, this is only a stop-gap in the fight against this pandemic. Dexamethasone is a weapon against COVID-19 that has the potential to save thousands of lives but thousands more are still in peril from a virus that has no real cure yet. Hopefully, dexamethasone will not be the last drug to show promise in helping to save lives, but it is just a stall until a working vaccine can be developed and manufactured for the entire world.
This is a triumph but let us not forget that there is still a deadly virus out there, and it’s killing people every day. We must continue to be vigilant and do whatever we can to help prevent the spread of infections. It is up to all of us to stay safe out there.