For the last 2 months, we've been wondering: whatever happened to that British study purporting to show surprising efficacy of cheap steroid dexamethasone in treating COVID-19?
While we suspected that drug companies working on vaccines and fancy new treatments (see Gilead's questionably effective remdesivir) might secretly be working to undermine this type of research for fear it might interfere with
"innovation" their bottom lines, on Wednesday, a group of doctors brought together by the WHO published a report analyzing several studies on the effectiveness of steroids in treating late-stage COVID-19.
The studies, which involved a total of 1,700 patients, apparently show that a number of cheap, plentiful corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs that can damp the effects of an overactive immune system) helped lower COVID-19-related mortality by roughly one-third, compared with the 'control' group that didn't receive the medication.
The paper published by JAMA featured a meta-analysis performed by the group of scientists and doctors encompassing seven studies done between February and June. All the studies evaluated the use of the commonly used steroid drugs dexamethasone, hydrocortisone and methylprednisolone. The study found relatively consistent benefits for using the drugs in severely ill patients: Of 678 severely ill patients who received steroids, 32.7% died, compared with 41.5% of patients receiving either the usual care, or a placebo (depending on the study).
The doctors called the data an "unambiguous win" and said it might lead to these types of drugs becoming part of the "standard treatment" of COVID-19.
"This to me feels like one of the first unambiguous wins in trying to combat Covid-19,” said Derek C. Angus, a distinguished professor of critical-care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the leaders and authors of the meta-analysis. Angus spoke during an interview with WSJ.
Dr. Angus, one of the doctors who helmed the study, said that the results are particularly encouraging because of the consistency seen across different types of steroids used for treatments. This, the doctor said, should lead to widespread acceptance of steroids as treatment for COVID-19.
There is one important caveat: The steroids only show meaningful results in "only the sickest" of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. So far, no drugs have proven effective at combating early-stage outbreaks (except some studies on hydroxychloroquine, but we won't get into that). Still, that should mean it could be effective at reducing the mortality rate from the disease.
The steroids appear to work by dampening a hyperactive immune response that is thought to be a major cause of death. Though researchers claimed it’s still too early to know for certain how it works, this so-called "cytokine storm" has been a major topic of mystery and discussion among researchers and doctors. Researchers who published this latest study claimed this explanation is "too simplistic", since other aspects of the immune response are also at work, and partly responsible.
"It’s almost death by friendly fire...You end up causing more trouble with your own immune system than the virus itself," the study said.
This meta-study, along with the latest approval of a rapid, cheap COVID-19 test (this one made by Roche), is the latest development that bolsters the White House's push to reopen the economy and get children back in the classroom - efforts that some Democrats have denounced as ploys intended to get Trump reelected no matter the cost in terms of lives.
But keeping children out of school and people out of the workforce has created many serious, even deadly, problems of its own.