Dexamethasone: the cheap effective COVID-19 treatment that saved millions

John Hanna, whose life was saved by the RECOVERY trial, with his wife Esther

Two years ago today, the discovery of the first ever lifesaving treatment for COVID-19 — an inexpensive, readily available steroid called dexamethasone- was announced to the world.

In the following nine months, dexamethasone saved an estimated one million lives worldwide, including 22,000 in the UK.

The treatment was found by researchers from the RECOVERY trial — one of the world’s fastest-recruiting treatment trials in medical history.

In early February 2020, UKRI put out a call for research proposals to tackle Covid-19. The RECOVERY trial was one of the first projects to get the go-ahead, with £2.1 million of funding from UKRI and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR). This enabled RECOVERY to be announced on the first day of the UK lockdown (23 March 2020).

Within 15 days of the announcement, more than 1,000 participants around the UK had joined the trial; five weeks later, that number had risen to 10,000.

In the first 100 days alone, the trial produced three ground-breaking results that changed the world:

  • 5 June — The antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which had been suggested as a possible treatment by key figures in the public eye, was shown to have no clinical benefit.
  • 16 June — dexamethasone — The first ever COVID-19 treatment, proven to reduce deaths by up to one third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications.
  • 29 June — lopinavir — ritonavir — RECOVERY results showed the drug combination was not effective at preventing deaths in hospitalised patients.

Today, we’re celebrating the success of the trial, with the story of someone whose life was saved by taking part. John Hanna was critically ill with Covid-19 when his wife was asked if she thought he would want to be enrolled. She gave an immediate yes. Watch their story below:

You can read more about the RECOVERY Trial from some of the researchers who worked on it below.

And you can read more about RECOVERY’s role around the world here:

Want to know more?

If you’re a UK taxpayer, your contributions help fund RECOVERY, via UK Research and Innovation — the UK’s largest public funder of research — and the Medical Research Council, in conjunction with NIHR. You can read more about UKRI here, and more about NIHR here.

On March 3 2022, the RECOVERY trial team announced that a fourth drug has been found to reduce deaths in patients hospitalised with Covid-19. Baricitinib, an arthritis drug, helped reduce the risk of death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients by 13% regardless of which other coronavirus treatment they were given. Read more:

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