Updated: Sep 9, 2020
According to three newly published clinical trials, affordable, widely available steroid drugs lowered the number of deaths in the sickest patients with COVID-19. This was contained in a report released by the World Health Organization last Wednesday. The report strongly recommends using doctors' medications to treat severe or critical forms of disease triggered by coronavirus infections.
The WHO's announcement is the latest in the series of recommendations of using a synthetic steroid, dexamethasone, to treat hospitalized patients who require oxygen or ventilators. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has earlier passed the same recommendations.
The evidence behind the recommendation by the WHO included a meta-analysis funded by the organization, which evaluated three new studies, plus four other randomized, controlled trials. Each trial involved a drug from the family of inflammatory medications called corticosteroids.
The WHO review found corticosteroids decreased deaths in critically ill patients by 20 percent, reducing two deaths per 5 patients to 1 in 3. It concluded that another steroid, hydrocortisone, is on par with dexamethasone in terms of benefits.
"Corticosteroids are the only treatment that has been conclusively demonstrated to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19," stated Jonathan Sterne, an author of meta-analysis and an expert in medical statistics at Britain's University of Bristol. "These results strengthen the evidence that doctors should treat critically ill COVID-19 patients with corticosteroids unless there is a strong reason not to do so based on the circumstances of the individual patients," he concluded.
Dexamethasone was the first drug proven to increase the odds of survival in patients with severe covid-19 when initial results from a British clinical trial, dubbed Recovery, were released in June. The similarity in the benefits displayed by these new studies was a significant boost in confidence to doctors who had been using corticosteroids in the treatment of patients according to the initial outcomes.
Steroid drugs have also been found useful in treating unwanted side effects, including high blood sugar levels and delirium. Future studies are expected to refine drug dosages and duration, according to WHO experts. A trial has also been launched in Denmark to look into the effects of high vs. low doses of steroids.