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What is dexamethasone and how does it treat coronavirus?

  • It mimics natural steroids to calm inflammatory immune responses 
  • Survival rates have increased for patients on ventilators and oxygen
  • Researchers say the steroid is common and affordable

A steroid commonly prescribed for its anti-inflammatory properties might be the next major breakthrough in coronavirus treatment. 

The researchers who conducted trials on dexamethasone say one-third of coronavirus deaths can be prevented with the use of the drug for patients on ventilators, according to the BBC. For those on oxygen, their chances of survival increase by one-fifth.

U.K. trials with the steroid have indicated that it does essentially nothing for patients whose cases haven’t progressed to the point that they need oxygen or a ventilator. Due to its effectiveness at increasing survival rates in these patients in particular, researchers involved insist that it become standard for these patients. The trial, nicknamed “Recovery,” was conducted at the University of Oxford 

“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,” co-lead investigator Peter Horby told CNBC.

Dexamethasone is a glucocorticosteroid administered via injection or orally in a tablet and prevents the release of substances in the body that produce inflammation. It is most commonly prescribed to treat swelling of spine and brain tissue, as well as inflammation of the eye. By mimicking the steroids produced by the body, dexamethasone can help calm a cytokine storm, which overwhelms the immune system and attacks healthy cells and organs in coronavirus patients.  

Typically used to treat side effects of cancer treatment, dexamethasone is already a common enough drug that supply may not be an issue. This steroid can potentially help patients on ventilators and oxygen at a relatively small cost. Enough dexamethasone to treat eight people only costs around $60

Sources: CNBC, Chemocare, BBC, Science Magazine


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