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Budesonide — a relatively cheap, inhaled asthma drug — has been shown in a clinical trial to shorten recovery times for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients over the age of 50.

Why it matters: Most COVID-19 cases are mild-to-moderate in severity, with patients able to recover at home. More than one year into the pandemic, though, we still have very few treatment options for people in that group.

Doctors can prescribe monoclonal antibodies for high-risk patients with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19, but those must be administered intravenously by a healthcare provider, meaning the patient usually has to leave their home and risk spreading the coronavirus.

COVID-19 patients can self-administer budesonide at home.

The study: The asthma drug was added to Oxford University's PRINCIPLE trial in November 2020.

About 750 trial participants over the age of 50 were randomly selected to treat their COVID-19 with the asthma drug. In addition to the standard NHS care for moderate COVID-19 (rest and acetaminophen), they took two puffs on an inhaler, twice a day, for the first two weeks of symptoms.

More than 1,000 others in that age group were randomly assigned to only the standard NHS care.

The findings: The median recovery time for people who received the asthma drug was three days less than for those who didn't, based on self-reporting of symptoms. People who started out in the budesonide group were also hospitalized less frequently, although that outcome is still being studied.

"Unlike other proven treatments, budesonide is effective as a treatment at home and during the early stages of the illness," Richard Hobbs, the trial's joint chief investigator, said in a press release. "This is a significant milestone for this pandemic and a major achievement for community-based research."

U.K. doctors can now consider prescribing the asthma drug for COVID-19 patients.

Cautiously optimistic: The PRINCIPLE researchers have only published a preliminary analysis of budesonide's efficacy on a preprint server. The data still needs to undergo the peer-review process — final results, including the effect on hospitalization risk, are expected before the end of April.

What it means for you: The NHS isn't outright recommending the asthma drug as a COVID-19 treatment just yet, but it released a position statement saying doctors can consider it for patients as off-label treatment on a case-by-case basis.

If health agencies in other nations follow suit, the medication could help patients across the globe recover from the disease more quickly, while also stemming its spread.

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