The World Health Organization (WHO) hailed as “great news” initial clinical trial results that showed a cheap and widely used steroid called dexamethasone can help save the lives of critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Researchers in Britain said Tuesday that dexamethasone, used to fight inflammation in other diseases, reduced death rates of the most severely ill Covid-19 patients by around a third.
“This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with Covid-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement late on Tuesday.
“This is great news and I congratulate the government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients in the UK who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough.”
The researchers shared initial insights about the results of the trial with WHO, “and we are looking forward to the full data analysis in the coming days”, it said.
“WHO will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention. WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in Covid-19,” the agency added.
The report brought skepticism from some, with doctors saying they wanted to see more data.
Steroids can suppress immune systems, warned Dr. Thomas McGinn, deputy physician-in-chief at New York’s largest healthcare system, Northwell Health. He told Reuters his physicians are using steroids on a case-by-case basis.
“We have to see what the study looks like given the current environment of retractions,” said McGinn. “I just wait to see the real data, see if it’s peer-reviewed, and gets published in a real journal, he said.
University of Washington professor of medicine Dr Mark Wurfel urged the researchers to put out data before official publication.
“That would be very, very helpful in terms of helping us align our patient populations with theirs and decide whether it’s appropriate to apply this therapy to our patients.”
“We have been burned before, not just during the coronavirus pandemic but even pre-COVID, with exciting results that when we have access to the data are not as convincing,” said Dr. Kathryn Hibbert, director of the medical intensive care unit at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
Hibbert said published data would help her evaluate the findings and see which patients benefited the most and at what dose.
South Korea’s top health official also cautioned about the use of the drug for Covid-19 patients due to potential side effects.
Researchers in Britain have said they would work to publish full details as soon as possible.