Researchers at the University of Oxford announced on Tuesday that a cheap and widely available drug can cut the risk of death by a third in severely ill coronavirus patients.

Dexamethasone, a low-dose steroid, is the first drug proven to improve survival rates among COVID-19 patients – and costs just £5 (about $6).

It is already used for other conditions, including arthritis and asthma.

“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19. This is an extremely welcome result,” said Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Oxford University and one of the chief investigators for the trial.

“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. Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

The research suggests that up to 5,000 lives could have been saved in the UK had the drug been used at the start of the pandemic.

It will now be rolled out for use in all high-risk cases in the National Health Service.

Martin Landray, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Oxford University and another of the chief investigators, said the results of the trial were very clear: “Dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications.”

“COVID-19 is a global disease – it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide.”

British researchers have been trying out a range of different coronavirus treatments since March.

The dexamethasone trial saw 2,104 patients given six milligrams of dexamethasone once a day orally or intravenously, and compared their progress with a control group of 4,321 patients.

Over 28 days, the research showed it had reduced the rate of death in patients on ventilators by 35% and in patients needing oxygen by 20%.

There was no notable change in patients who did not need respiratory support.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, hailed the breakthrough as “tremendous news” that was particularly welcome “as this [dexamethasone] is an inexpensive widely available medicine.”

“This is a groundbreaking development in our fight against the disease, and the speed at which researchers have progressed finding an effective treatment is truly remarkable,” he said.

With nearly 300,000 cases and over 42,000 deaths, the UK has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed almost 438,000 lives in at least 188 countries and regions since last December.

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