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A large clinical trial of COVID-19 patients in the United Kingdom has reportedly discovered the first life-saving coronavirus drug — and it's a cheap, readily available steroid.

On June 16, the team behind the RECOVERY study, which looked at different coronavirus treatments, reported that the steroid dexamethasone reduced death rates in patients on ventilators by nearly one-third, from 40% to 28%, and deaths in patients requiring oxygen by one-fifth, from 25% to 20%.

"For less than ($63.26), you can treat eight patients and save a life."

Martin Landray

If the drug had been prescribed from the beginning, the team claims that it could have prevented up to 5,000 of the 41,000 deaths in the U.K. so far. However, the study has yet to be published or peer-reviewed, so such estimates may be speculative.

"These preliminary results from the RECOVERY trial are very clear — dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications," Martin Landray, one of the trial's chief investigators, said in a press release.

Discovering a Life-Saving Coronavirus Drug

U.K. researchers launched the RECOVERY trial (for "Randomised Evaluation of COVid-19 thERapY") in March, as a way to test multiple potential coronavirus treatments for coronavirus patients.

More than 11,500 patients have since enrolled in the trial at hospitals across the U.K. Of those, 2,104 were randomly assigned to receive a low-dose of dexamethasone for 10 days as their treatment.

When compared to more than 4,000 control patients given only the usual care, the dexamethasone cohort had better survival rates if a patient's case was severe enough to require ventilation or oxygen therapy — the steroid had no measurable benefit for patients with milder cases of COVID-19.

According to the researchers, the survival rate for ventilated patients treated with dexamethasone increases from 60% to 72% — meaning for every eight patients treated, the drug will save one life. For less severe cases that require only supplemental oxygen, the drug increases survival rates from 75% to 80%.

And a 10-day course of the potentially life-saving coronavirus drug costs less than $7.

"It's going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than 50 pounds (sterling) ($63.26), you can treat eight patients and save a life," Landray said during an online briefing, Reuters reported.

Cautiously Optimistic About Dexamethasone

Right now, remdesivir is the only medication shown to help COVID-19 patients, and its utility is limited to getting patients with mild cases out of the hospital faster.

Dexamethasone is the first potentially life-saving coronavirus drug for severely ill patients, and the RECOVERY researchers are now recommending that doctors use it to treat COVID-19 patients with cases severe enough to require oxygen.

However, there is reason to be skeptical of these newly announced findings: they've yet to be published.

The RECOVERY researchers say they hope to release the full details of their study as soon as possible, but so far, they've only shared a press release about it. They haven't published a study in a peer-reviewed journal or even on a preprint server.

Until their findings hold up to the scrutiny of peer-review, there's reason to be cautious — other seemingly promising treatments for COVID-19 have fallen short of the initial hype.

However, with approximately 4,000 people dying from COVID-19 every day, the news that a large clinical trial may have uncovered a cheap, widely available life-saving coronavirus drug is worth celebrating.

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