The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutal, but now, preliminary research is showing promising results from an inexpensive steroid treatment. The drug's name is dexamethasone, and it's part of the world’s largest trial testing existing treatments. So far, results indicate that it may cut the risk of death from coronavirus by a third for patients on ventilators, having an “immediate impact” on how doctors treat severe cases, the former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, told CNBC.
Dexamethasone could decrease mortality by a fifth for people on supplemental oxygen, according to data from scientists at the University of Oxford which has yet to be published. More research is needed to confirm its findings, but experts such as Dr. Gottlieb are optimistic, saying the study is “well designed.”
Here’s what we know about the drug so far.
What is dexamethasone and what is it used for?
Dexamethasone is classified as a steroid. It can be prescribed in tablet form or as an oral solution, eye drops, or ear drops. It's sometimes prescribed to dogs with inflammation or some cancers. In humans, it’s often taken for conditions that have to do with inflammation, immune system activity, and hormone deficiencies, Healthline notes. It may be used to help with rheumatoid arthritis, severe allergies, kidney problems, colitis, and flare-ups of multiple sclerosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Certain kinds of inflammatory conditions can cause the body’s immune system to overreact, damaging the body’s tissues. But dexamethasone can stop this immune response to protect the body.
It’s also affordable. GoodRx notes that the most common form of the drug is about $7.59, and is covered by most insurance and Medicare plans. Some U.S. brand names include Zema-Pak, DexPak, and Baycadron Elixer.
How does it work to treat COVID-19?
Where Covid-19 is concerned, experts believe that the drug could help suppress the immune system, improving health for patients whose systems are overactive and attacking their own lungs and bodies. This is known as the “cytokine storm,” and it's a known issue when it comes to severe cases of the disease.
Researchers say that if the treatment had been used to help patients in the U.K. from the beginning of the outbreak, it could have saved 5,000 lives, reports BBC News.
Are there any side effects?
Generally, dexamethasone side effects include issues such as nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, headaches, mood changes, anxiety, dizziness, and high blood pressure, Healthline notes. More serious issues include infections, unusual bleeding or bruising, blood in the urine or stool, and allergic reactions.
But the new trial shows that the drug had no effect on mild cases of coronavirus — including no clear adverse effects — and could be a game-changer in dire situations. "This treatment can be given to pretty much anyone,” said Peter Horby, an infectious disease specialist and chief investigator of the trial, according to Nature. “It is a major breakthrough.”