Researchers in the United Kingdom have achieved a breakthrough with the discovery that the drug dexamethasone cuts the risk of death for coronavirus patients on ventilators by 33%, BBC reported. The drug also reduces deaths of patients on oxygen support by 20%, the researchers found. The discovery was made during a major trial to find a treatment for the coronavirus, that examines existing treatments.

During the trial, led by a team from Oxford University, around 2,000 hospital patients were given dexamethasone. Around 4,000 others were not given the drug, and the two groups were compared. Dexamethasone cut the risk of death for patients on ventilator from 40% to 28%, and for those on oxygen support, from 25% to 20%.

The researchers said that had the drug been used to treat patients in the United Kingdom from the beginning of the pandemic, over 5,000 lives could have been saved. Over 41,000 people have died in the country till Tuesday, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

Dexamethasone is already used to reduce inflammation in a range of other medical conditions, the BBC reported. The researchers found that it is effective on patients whose immune system has gone into overdrive in response to the coronavirus infection. Such an overreaction by the immune system is known as a “cytokine storm” and can be deadly.

“This is the only drug so far that has been shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly,” Chief Investigator Peter Horby said. “It is a major breakthrough.”

Lead researcher Martin Landray said that the drug is cheap, as it costs only about £5 (Rs 481) per patient, and is administered for up to 10 days. Landray said hospital patients should be given dexamethasone without delay, but people should not buy it from medical stores.

The trial, known as the Recovery Trial, began in March. It had already tested the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir.

As of Tuesday, over 80 lakh cases of the coronavirus have been reported globally, and over 4.37 lakh people have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University. The disease is known to affect people of all ages, but disproportionately kills the elderly and those with co-morbid conditions.

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