Cheap drug could help save lives from coronavirus, early study results show

Henrietta Strickland
June 17, 2020

A team led by Scripps Research, US, report they have discovered antibodies in the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients that provide powerful protection against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease, when tested in animals and human cell cultures.

"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". These were compared to 4,321 patients assigned to receive usual care alone.

A clinical trial has shown that an low-priced steroid called dexamethasone could prevent death in one out of eight ventilated COVID-19 patients and one out of 25 patients receiving oxygen only.

Lead author of the review, Dr. Igor Koralnik, Northwestern Medicine chief of neuro-infectious diseases and global neurology said, "It's important for the general public and physicians to be aware of this, because a SARS-COV-2 infection may present with neurologic symptoms initially before any fever, cough or respiratory problems occur".

A research team from the University of Oxford announced the results in a press release Tuesday, though full results have not yet been published.

The mortality rate of those who end up on a ventilator is above 40%, but this was reduced by a third among people prescribed dexamethasone.

The only other drug that has shown promise in a clinical setting for treating coronavirus is remdesivir, an experimental antiviral treatment that has shown promise in treating patients early in the infection's onset. But a study in patients who needed oxygen showed no benefit from a similar drug, although another arm in sicker patients in continuing.

'This is a ground-breaking development in our fight against the disease, and the speed at which researchers have progressed finding an effective treatment is truly remarkable.

"This is the only drug that has so far shown to reduce mortality, and it reduces it significantly".

These antibodies can then be mass-produced, using biotech methods, as a treatment that blocks severe disease and as a vaccine-like preventive that circulates in the blood for several weeks to protect against infection. The trial is supported by a grant to the University of Oxford from UK Research and Innovation/National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and by core funding provided by NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, Wellcome, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Department for International Development, Health Data Research UK, the Medical Research Council Population Health Research Unit, and NIHR Clinical Trials Unit Support Funding.

In the course of their attempts to isolate anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from the COVID-19 patients, the researchers found one that can also neutralize SARS-CoV, the related coronavirus that caused the 2002-2004 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Asia.

The study, known as the RECOVERY Trial, enrolled more than 11,000 patients in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. "It's going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than £50 ($63.26), you can treat eight patients and save a life", he told reporters in an online briefing.

Research is continuing on the other treatments.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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