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Researchers found promising new coronavirus drugs that stop people from dying

Published Sep 2nd, 2020 3:26PM EDT
Coronavirus Treatment
Image: kieferpix/Adobe

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  • The novel coronavirus doesn’t have a cure, but there are plenty of therapies that have shown great promise in clinical trials.
  • Researchers analyzed trials of common steroid drugs like dexamethasone and concluded that this class of drugs can cut COVID-19 death rates by 20%.
  • These widely available steroids seem to work regardless of the age or sex of the patient, and regardless of whether mechanical ventilation was used prior to the administration of the drugs.
  • The research is promising, but steroids aren’t an ideal cure and they aren’t enough to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several factors make the novel coronavirus pandemic so scary. The virus spreads with ease and it will infect anybody who gets in its way, regardless of sex, age, or location. The virus is just as powerful in the winter and in the summer. The incubation period can last up to two weeks, and people can be contagious before the onset of symptoms. Some never develop symptoms at all, but they can still spread the illness. Finally, the condition of some COVID-19 patients can deteriorate rapidly, and the ensuing complications can lead to death.

There are ways to mitigate all these factors and beat the pandemic, but the world is nowhere near close to that victory. Safety measures that include social distancing, face masks, and frequent hand washing can help reduce the spread of the virus. Ample testing campaigns and contact tracing can help health officials catch and isolate infected people who might not even realize they have the virus. But we still lack the kind of treatment that would deal with the most troubling aspect of the illness, the risk of death. The first days of September bring good news on that front though, as researchers are now confident that they found a class of drugs that can significantly cut the death rates among critically ill COVID-19 patients. The drugs won’t save everyone who gets a severe case of COVID-19, but they could be a breakthrough that ends up saving many lives.

It was in mid-June that UK researchers revealed the findings of a local dexamethasone study that said the drug can save lives of critical COVID-19 patients. At the time, we told you that dexamethasone only works in certain conditions, and not all people would be saved. That conclusion still stands today, but it appears as though dexamethasone will save some of the COVID-19 patients that experience a severe course of the illness. Now, there’s a huge update on the matter because it looks like other drugs from the same class as dexamethasone can have similar benefits. Not only that, but the use of corticosteroids can apparently cut the death rate by 20%.

This new conclusion comes from an analysis of seven international trials, Reuters reports. The development is so important that the World Health Organization (WHO) will update its advice on COVID-19 treatment. The analysis looked at trials of low dose hydrocortisone, dexamethasone, and methylprednisolone, the report notes. The scientists say that steroids improve survival rates of coronavirus patients who need intensive care once they’re admitted to a hospital.

“This is equivalent to around 68% of (the sickest COVID-19) patients surviving after treatment with corticosteroids, compared to around 60% surviving in the absence of corticosteroids,” the researchers said in a statement.

“Steroids are a cheap and readily available medication, and our analysis has confirmed that they are effective in reducing deaths amongst the people most severely affected by COVID-19,” professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Britain’s Bristol University Jonathan Sterne told a briefing.

Sterne and his peers looked at data from Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Spain, and the US, and found that the drugs work in the sickest patients regardless of age, sex, or the amount of time the patient has been sick. Also important is the conclusion that the treatment works regardless of whether or not the patients were on ventilation at the time they started steroid therapy.

“These results are clear and instantly usable in clinical practice,” Oxford University’s Martin Landray told reporters. “Among critically ill patients with COVID-19, low-dose corticosteroids…significantly reduce the risk of death.” Landray was involved in the dexamethasone study.

Needless to say, news that other steroid drugs besides dexamethasone could significantly improve the condition of severe COVID-19 patients isn’t enough to put a stop to the pandemic. Steroids can’t stop outbreaks or cure COVID-19 in all patients. “Impressive as these results are, this is not a cure,” said Imperial College London professor Anthony Gordon, who was involved in the study. “We now have something that will help, but it is not a cure, so it’s vital that we keep up all the prevention strategies.”

Also important to note is that steroids can’t prevent the infection. Instead, they will mitigate the inflammation that appears during COVID-19, and save the lives of some of the patients who develop complications. And best of all, these steroids are very common and often quite affordable.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.