10 things to know about the steroid called a 'major breakthrough' in COVID-19 treatment

Researchers from the University of Oxford in England touted results June 16 of a clinical trial that found a commonly used steroid could significantly improve survival rates in COVID-19 patients. 

The trial is the largest randomized controlled trial of COVID-19 drugs in the world and is testing six treatments, including dexamethasone, a decades-old steroid that scientists are now calling a "major breakthrough" for COVID-19 treatment, according to CNBC.

10 things to know about dexamethasone: 

  1. Dexamethasone is the first drug that has shown to improve survival in COVID-19 patients, the BBC reported. Remdesivir, the antiviral drug made by Gilead that the FDA granted emergency use authorization, shortened recovery time for patients but had no statistically significant reduction in mortality.

  2. Dexamethasone was originally made in 1957 and works to reduce inflammation by mimicking anti-inflammatory hormones, according to the BBC. COVID-19 triggers inflammation when the body tries to fight it off, and the immune system sometimes overreacts, which can cause a fatal reaction. Dexamethasone works to calm the immune system's reaction. 

  3. Dexamethasone is commonly used to treat conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and certain cancers.

  4. Because it is an old drug and doesn't have any patents, any drugmaker can manufacture it, making it widely available.
  5. The drug is only intended to be given to COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized and are either on a ventilator or receiving oxygen, according to the BBC.

  6. Common side effects of dexamethasone include anxiety, difficulty sleeping, weight gain and fluid retention, according to the BBC. Less common side effects include eye disorders, blurred vision and hemorrhage. The trial showed low doses of dexamethasone were effective, which should limit side effects.

  7. Peter Bach, MD, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City, tweeted June 16 that he thinks dexamethasone is the right treatment call for COVID-19 patients with oxygenation problems instead of remdesivir. Dr. Bach said dexamethasone seems more promising, since it has significantly reduced deaths while remdesivir has not, and because clinicians have more experience with dexamethasone.

  8. Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization's emergencies program, said June 17 the agency is looking at other research on dexamethasone outside of the Oxford trial and will give clinical advice to countries, CNBC reported. The WHO has urged the public to be cautious about dexamethasone in relation to COVID-19, as the information published from the Oxford trial is still preliminary.

  9. Oxford University said it's working to publish the full details of the trial "as soon as possible." The results published in its media release haven't been peer reviewed or formally published.

  10. Dexamethasone is immediately available for use for the National Health Service in the U.K., but has not been authorized for use to treat COVID-19 in the U.S. 

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