Dexamethasone steroid saved one million people from COVID death

dexamethasone steroid, ecmo machine
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The Dexamethasone steroid has been used across the globe to help treat COVID-19 in the ICU – leading to atleast one million survivors of hospitalisation from the virus

While COVID vaccinations are dominant in how we think about fighting the virus, pre-existing drugs and treatments have been unearthed as instrumental to preventing COVID deaths.

Dr Steve Alexander from the University of Nottingham, discussing the possibility of non-vaccine drugs, said: “There’s unlikely to be a single magic bullet – we will probably need several drugs in our armoury, some that will need be used in combination with others. The important thing is that these drugs are cheap to produce and easy to manufacture.

“That way, we can ensure access to affordable drugs across the globe, not just for wealthier nations.”

The non-vaccine drugs that saved lives

Research published in The Lancet in October, 2020, suggested that there wasn’t enough data on how remdesivir works alongside dexamethasone.

On its own, remdesivir can’t stop death.

First author, Michael A Matthay, said: “It is conceivable that the beneficial effects of dexamethasone in patients on supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation might be attenuated by the administration of an effective antiviral agent.”

Early in the pandemic, remdesivir was ear-marked as a potential front runner for non-vaccine treatment. In one study, researchers looked for other drugs that could make remdesivir more powerful against the virus.

From a tech angle, the ECMO machine was found to decrease COVID deaths by 45% in the US. Unfortunately, the cost of these machines is so difficult for patients to afford that they are rarely used throughout the most heavily-trafficked hospitals in America – rough costs for a period of ECMO use in 2014 were around $550,000.

In the UK, the ECMO machines are more commonly used for individuals whose lungs are too damaged to receive ventilation or oxygen.

What about dexamethasone?

But this is the story of a quieter, less well-known drug that was deployed around the world to help ICU patients survive COVID. Known as the dexamethasone steroid, this drug has saved around 22,000 lives in the UK and one million globally.

All it takes for the drug to take effect is ten days of one pill daily, which can aid in significant recovery by that point.

A paper by the NHS established the value of the commonly used steroid, saying that: “Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one fifth in other patients receiving oxygen only.”

However, this drug only came into play for those who needed respiratory support – in COVID-19 patients who were not in the ICU, there was no path to recovery via dexamethasone.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens commented: “Thanks to the exceptional work of our researchers, NHS staff and patients, around one million lives may have been saved around the world.”


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