June 16 (UPI) -- Treatment with low-dose dexamethasone, a steroid, reduced the risk for death among COVID-19 patients on ventilator support by more than 30 percent, according to preliminary findings of the "Recovery" trial released Tuesday by researchers at the University of Oxford in England.
Had the treatment been used in patients with severe breathing complications caused by the new coronavirus since the start of the outbreak in Britain, up to 5,000 lives could have been saved, researchers estimated.
"Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19, [and] the survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment," Peter Horby, chief investigator on the Recovery trial, said in a statement.
The drug "can now become standard of care in these patients [and it] is inexpensive, on the shelf and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide," said Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.
Dexamethasone was approved in the United States in the late 1950s. It is used to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from allergies to autoimmune disorders.
The Recovery trial, based at the University of Oxford, is evaluating the safety and effectiveness of multiple potential COVID-19 treatments, including the HIV regimen lopinavir-ritonavir and the use of blood plasma from those who have recovered from the virus.
To date, the trial has enrolled more than 11,500 patients, officials said.
More than 2,100 patients received dexamethasone at a once-daily dose of 6 milligrams, either by mouth or by intravenous injection, for 10 days, the researchers said.
Compared with 4,321 patients who received usual care for COVID-19, those on ventilator support treated with dexamethasone were 35 percent less likely to die from the infection, while those needing oxygen given the drug were 20 percent less likely to die, they said.
The drug offered no clinical benefit for patients who did not need breathing support, researchers said.
Based on their findings, treatment with dexamethasone would prevent one death in every eight ventilated patients, they estimated.
"These preliminary results from the Recovery trial are very clear -- dexamethasone reduces the risk of death among patients with severe respiratory complications," chief investigator Martin Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
"It is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide."