Skip to Content
Biotechnology

A cheap steroid might be the first covid-19 drug to save lives

Doctors attend a coronavirus patient who is receiving oxygen
Doctors attend a coronavirus patient who is receiving oxygen
Associated Press

The news: A cheap steroid called dexamethasone significantly cuts the chances that seriously ill covid-19 patients will die, according to the world’s biggest trial of existing treatments. Specifically, it reduced the risk of death for patients on ventilators by a third. For those receiving oxygen, it cut the risk of death by a fifth. The drug is one of six preexisting treatments currently being trialed in coronavirus patients as part of a study led by the University of Oxford.

The details: Researchers enrolled 6,412 patients in the study. They selected 2,104 to receive 6 milligrams of dexamethasone every day for 10 days, as either an injection or a pill, while the remaining 4,321 patients received the usual care alone. While the drug significantly cut the number of deaths among patients on ventilators and those receiving oxygen, there was no benefit to patients who didn’t need respiratory support, who make up the vast majority of people with covid-19. In particular, dexamethasone seems to stop some of the damage that can occur when patients’ immune systems go into overdrive to try to fight off covid-19, a phenomenon known as a cytokine storm.

Good news: The researchers have only released a statement thus far. The paper hasn’t been published yet, and further studies would help confirm the validity of the findings. That said, this discovery could save countless lives. And even better, dexamethasone is readily available and very inexpensive—about $6 per dose. It was first approved as a treatment for inflammation in 1961 and is regularly prescribed to asthmatics.

Other options: The other drug that has shown some promising results is the antiviral remdesivir, which has shown to reduce hospital stays, but has not yet been shown conclusively to reduce the death rate for patients. Remdesivir is also made by pharmaceutical company Gilead and will certainly be sold for many times more than dexamethasone when it comes to market.

The significance: This study finding underlines the value of testing old treatments for covid-19, as opposed to relying on new discoveries alone. “The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford and one of the chief investigators for the trial.

“This is a major breakthrough: dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for covid-19,” said Nick Cammack, a researcher at Wellcome, a pharmaceutical research nonprofit, in a statement. However, he cautioned that “to end this pandemic, we still need better diagnostics to detect, medicines to treat, and vaccines to prevent covid-19.”

Deep Dive

Biotechnology

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.