Matthew Horwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Is dexamethasone really a coronavirus "breakthrough" drug?

We’re all exhausted by the pandemic hope roller coaster. Each news cycle seems to bring a new potential “cure,” which is quickly debunked by science. No one is more frustrated by the search for relief than the scientists who are working around the clock to save lives. Now new research suggests that dexamethasone, a steroid, could be a breakthrough in COVID-19 treatment.

The results of a British clinical trial released Tuesday show that the drug, which is a widely available and inexpensive steroid used to treat inflammatory conditions like arthritis, reduced the death rates of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 by up to a third, the New York Times reported. "This result shows that if patients who have COVID-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost," Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial, known as the RECOVERY trial, told the Times.

The British ministry of health immediately approved the treatment within Britain. Britain has apparently been stockpiling the drug since March and is currently restricting export, but it is also approved by the F.D.A. and available in the U.S., reported CNBC. “This is a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have,” infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told the Times.

Taechit Taechamanodom/Moment/Getty Images

University of Oxford conducted the study with over 6,000 participants. Researchers randomly assigned 2,104 patients to get the drug and compared them with 4,321 patients getting only usual care. Dexamethasone reduced the death rate by 35% in patients who needed ventilators and by 20% in those who needed supplemental oxygen, the Times reported. Scientists don’t think it helps patients who are less ill, but it could save many of the most at-risk patients’ lives.

The drug generally works by reducing inflammation in the body; this is important because when COVID-19 attacks the immune system, the body overreacts by producing too much inflammation, which can damage the lungs and be fatal, the Times reported. Steroids aren’t called for in less severe cases of the disease because thwarting inflammation reduces immune response. In more severe cases, the fight against the virus causes so much inflammation that it hurts more than it helps, Fauci told the Times. That’s when dexamethasone can become a life saver. Here’s to hoping that this latest great breakthrough will protect the lives of those most at risk.