Health and Science

'Breakthrough' coronavirus treatment dexamethasone is a 'good first step,' lead researcher says

Key Points
  • In a study published this morning, dexamethasone cut the risk of death by a third for Covid-19 patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those on supplemental oxygen.
  • The drug is the first to show signs that it can improve survival among Covid-19 patients, the researchers said.
  • Martin Landray, one of the lead researchers, told CNBC that a treatment regimen with other drugs or therapeutics could prove to be even more effective in preventing death.
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Dr. Martin Landray on steroid study that shows reduced Covid-19 deaths

The new potential coronavirus treatment dexamethasone is a "good first step" to finding a cocktail of drugs that can effectively treat Covid-19, Oxford University professor Martin Landray, who co-led the study that found the drug to improve survival among patients, told CNBC on Tuesday.

Landray and his team earlier Tuesday published the results of a study, which has not been peer-reviewed, that show the cheap steroid cut the risk of death by a third for Covid-19 patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those on supplemental oxygen. The underlying data from the study has yet to be published, but the U.K. researchers who led the trial described the results as "a major breakthrough."

The drug is the first to show signs that it can improve survival among Covid-19 patients, the researchers said. There are currently no drugs approved by the FDA for the treatment of the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed at least 438,843 people around the world.

Landray told CNBC that the drug appears to effectively combat some aspects of the disease, but a treatment regimen in combination with other therapeutics, like an antiviral drug or antibody treatment, could prove to be even more effective in preventing death.

"It's very likely that we'll end up with a situation where a combination of drugs are used, just as we see in HIV, just as we see in heart disease, in many other areas of medicine," he said on CNBC's "Closing Bell." "But this is the first step. It's a good first step."

Dexamethasone, a steroid medication that's been used for decades to treat conditions like arthritis and asthma, is cheap and widely available, Landray said. He added that the drug combats Covid-19 by "dampening" the body's immune response, which in the sickest patients "almost turns against the body." This phenomenon, referred to by doctors as a cytokine storm, can severely damage Covid-19 patients' lungs and result in death.

In order to build on the study's findings, researchers will hopefully find a drug or therapeutic that attacks the virus itself rather than the body's response to the disease, Landray said. Such a drug could potentially be taken in conjunction with dexamethasone to create a robust combination treatment.

"It's a cheap drug, widely available — that's going to be first line therapy," he said. "And the question is do these other drugs now work on top of dexamethasone."

Gilead's remdesivir would be one such antiviral drug, but it has not proven to improve a patient's chances of surviving Covid-19. Studies have indicated remdesivir shortens the recovery time for patients.

While dexamethasone effectively treated hospitalized patients enrolled in Landray's study, it did not have a beneficial effect on patients who were not sick enough to require respiratory support. Most people infected with the virus will not require hospitalization or respiratory support, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is not a treatment for the community," Landray said. "This is a treatment for the sickest patients. But if you had to have a drug and choose where it was going to work, you'd choose for it to work in the very high-risk group, the sickest patients."

While more research is needed and the study still needs to be reviewed, Landray said that "thousands of patients are dying each day" and the findings from his study are "good for patients today."