WHO ‘Welcomes’ Results of COVID-19 Drug Trial

    17 June 2020

    The World Health Organization (WHO) says it welcomes early results of a human trial of the drug dexamethasone to treat COVID-19 disease.

    Researchers in Britain announced Tuesday that their study shows dexamethasone cut death rates by around a third among patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19. Dexamethasone has been in use since the 1960s to reduce swelling caused by diseases such as arthritis.

    "This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement on Tuesday.

    The United Nations health agency also said it was looking forward to the full findings of the British trial. The WHO said the additional information could lead it to change its COVID-19 treatment guidelines.

    The University of Oxford is leading the study. It compared the results of treatment given to 2,104 patients who took the drug and 4,321 who received only usual care.

    After four weeks, deaths dropped by 35 percent in dexamethasone-treated patients who required ventilators. The patient group that needed oxygen but not ventilators showed a 20 percent drop in death rate after treatment with the drug. The incomplete results showed dexamethasone did not help patients who had less severe cases of COVID-19.

    The researchers said the findings suggest doctors should use the drug immediately as usual treatment for severely sick patients.

    A pharmacist displays an ampoule of Dexamethasone at the Erasme Hospital amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium, June 16, 2020.
    A pharmacist displays an ampoule of Dexamethasone at the Erasme Hospital amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium, June 16, 2020.

    Is it a major breakthrough?

    British Prime Minster Boris Johnson called the study a "major breakthrough." His government immediately approved the use of dexamethasone for coronavirus patients in Britain.

    South Korea's top health official, however, expressed concern about the use of the medicine for COVID-19 patients. She argued that some experts believe that the drug can weaken the body's natural defense system and produce undesirable changes.

    Other scientists are also calling for more detailed information about the study.

    Dr. Kathryn Hibbert is director of the medical intensive care division at the Harvard University-linked Massachusetts General Hospital. She said, "We have been burned before, not just during the coronavirus pandemic but even pre-COVID, with exciting results that when we have access to the data are not as convincing."

    Earlier in June, two respected medical publications, Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, withdrew published studies about experimental COVID-19 treatments. The data in both were said to be incorrect.

    However, the top American infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, praised the incomplete trial findings on dexamethasone, as a substantial improvement in available treatments.

    New outbreaks around the world

    The good news comes as coronavirus infections have again increased in China and some areas in the United States.

    On Wednesday, officials in Beijing increased the city's emergency warning to just under the highest level. Officials canceled more than 60 percent of flights to Beijing, suspended its reopening plan, closed schools and strengthened social distancing measures.

    The United States has recorded more than 2.1 million cases of COVID-19 and 117,000 deaths from the disease. Both numbers are the highest of any country where the disease has spread.

    As New York and California experience a decrease in COVID-19 cases, other states including Arizona, Texas and Florida are reporting daily increases of new coronavirus infections.

    Texas Governor Gregg Abbott said of the situation: "It does raise concerns, but there is no reason right now to be alarmed." Abbott noted that the increase might come from Texans that do not use face coverings or employ social distancing measures.

    I'm Jonathan Evans.

    Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English with information from the WHO and Reuters and Associated Press news reports. Caty Weaver was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    mortality - n. the number of deaths in a particular time or place

    ventilator - n. a medical device for helping a person to breathe

    access - n. a way of being able to use or get something

    convincing - adj. causing someone to believe that something is true or certain

    alarmed - adj. worried or frightened