The World Health Organisation has welcomed the initial clinical trial results from the United Kingdom (UK) that show dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, can be lifesaving for patients who are critically ill with COVID-19.
Dexamethasone is a steroid that has been used since the 1960s to reduce inflammation in a range of conditions, including inflammatory disorders and certain cancers.
It has been listed on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in multiple formulations, and is currently off-patent and affordably available in most countries.
Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO, said this at a news conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday.
He said: “On Tuesday, there was the welcome news of positive initial results from the RECOVERY trial in the United Kingdom.
“Dexamethasone, a common steroid, has been shown to have a beneficial effect on those patients severely ill with COVID-19.
“According to the early findings shared with WHO, for patients on oxygen alone the treatment was shown to reduce mortality by about one fifth.
“And for patients requiring a ventilator, mortality was reduced by about one third.’’
However, the director general said dexamethasone was shown to not have a beneficial effect for those with milder disease, who did not need respiratory support.
“This is very welcome news for those patients with severe illness, these drugs should only be used under close clinical supervision.
“We need more therapeutics that can be used to tackle the virus, including those with milder symptoms.
“WHO has now started to coordinate a meta-analysis pooling data from several clinical trials to increase our overall understanding of this intervention.
“We will update our clinical guidance to reflect how and when dexamethasone should be used to treat COVID-19,’’ he said.
Ghebreyesus therefore thanked the United Kingdom government, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals, researchers, patients and families who had contributed to this scientific breakthrough.
“WHO will continue to work with all partners to develop other therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19, including through the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.
“Over the coming weeks and months, we hope there will be more treatments that improve patient outcomes and save lives.
“While we are searching for COVID-19 treatments we must continue strong efforts to prevent as many infections as possible by finding, isolating, testing and caring for every case; and tracing and quarantining every contact,’’ he said.
According to him, COVID-19 is affecting the whole world but it is important to remember that for the most vulnerable communities, this is just one of many threats they face.
“We have consistently stressed the importance of ensuring essential health services continue, including routine vaccination and services for malaria, TB and HIV.’’
The director general, however, spoke on the need to give attention to the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).
“NTDs are a group of 20 diseases including elephantiasis, sleeping sickness, leprosy, trachoma and intestinal worms that collectively wreak havoc on the poorest and most marginalised communities.
“These diseases disfigure, disable and can kill, and they strike hardest in places of poverty and in remote areas where access to quality health services is extremely limited.
“WHO and partners have developed a new roadmap which moves away from single disease programmes to integrated approaches.
“It moves away from single diseases programme to the integrated approaches in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of neglected tropical diseases, as part of an overall movement toward universal health coverage,’’ he said.
According to him, the NTDs roadmap puts greater ownership on national and local governments to drive action.
“Like with COVID-19, it calls for greater collaboration between governments, academia, civil society and the private sector in order to boost innovation and access to health technologies.
“I have seen first hand the courage of people who are living with NTDs, which is why I call on countries not to forget about the most vulnerable,’’ he said.