A common steroid drug that’s been used for decades to treat conditions from altitude sickness to eye inflammation has been shown to reduce deaths by a third in the sickest patients in the hospital with COVID-19, British scientists say.

This is the first time, the researchers say, that a drug has been shown to have an effect on deaths rates of the virus that’s killed more than 110,000 people in the U.S.

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Researchers at the University of Oxford in the U.K. compared outcomes of 2,104 hospitalized patients who received the steroid, called dexamethasone, with 4,321 patients who did not.

According to the researchers, deaths were reduced by about a third in those patients who were sick enough to require mechanical ventilation, and by about 20 percent among patients who had trouble breathing, but had not been put on a ventilator. Dexamethasone did not appear to help patients who did not require oxygen.

The results of the clinical trial, called Recovery, have not yet been published in a medical journal and the data have not been made available for outside experts to review. Researchers said they stopped the trial early because of the observed benefits.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, expressed frustration on Twitter that “it is now a feature of this pandemic that most findings made public via press release with little data to provide context.” But, he added, “this is REALLY good news if it turns out to be true.”


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