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Can The Common Steroid Dexamethasone Reduce COVID-19 Deaths?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

A June 2020 trial done at the University of Oxford found that a common steroid was able to prevent a significant amount of COVID-19 deaths. The drug (called dexamethasone) was able to save the lives of 1 in 3 patients on ventilators and 1 in 5 patients on oxygen.


The Study


Researchers included 6,425 British patients in the trial. One-third of the patients were given dexamethasone in addition to standard hospital care, while the others received only standard hospital care. The patients given dexamethasone received the drug in low dosages.

The drug was most beneficial for patients who had been sick with COVID-19 for more than a week. Doctors saw a one-third reduction in deaths among patients on ventilators, and a one-fifth reduction in deaths among patients who were receiving oxygen. 


“This is the first treatment to be shown to reduce mortality in patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or ventilator support,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “This is great news and I congratulate the Government of the UK, the University of Oxford, and the many hospitals and patients in the UK who have contributed to this lifesaving scientific breakthrough.”

How can it be used in treating COVID-19?


Dexamethasone is a common steroid that provides anti-inflammatory effects. The body naturally produces cortisol, which soothes inflammation, and dexamethasone mimics this action of cortisol


In addition to its life-saving qualities, dexamethasone is especially promising because it’s so cheap, especially as compared to other less effective drugs. The drug costs a little under $7 per day to treat a sick patient. Not only is it inexpensive, the steroid is also out of patent, meaning no one pharmaceutical corporation can produce the drug under their brand name and sell it at a staggering markup. Any drug company can mass-produce dexamethasone and provide it as needed. The UK government is aware of all this and decided to start stockpiling the drug. They’ve already amassed a 200,000-person supply.

Another benefit of dexamethasone is its relatively mild side effects. As with any drug, the list is long, but, in general, patients taking this type of steroid for a short period of time (less than two weeks) do not experience many side effects. 


Unfortunately, the researchers found dexamethasone to have no benefit in treating mild cases of COVID-19–those where patients had no breathing problems. That means the drug could only be used to help severely ill coronavirus patients–those on respirators or oxygen. Nonetheless, the results of the study are groundbreaking and will likely lead to countless lives saved.

Another benefit of the drug is that it can be used to treat COVID-19 patients in developing countries. In many parts of Africa, dexamethasone costs less than $2. The government of South Africa is already recommending that hospitals use it to treat patients receiving oxygen or ventilation. The newfound knowledge that this drug could be a lifesaver couldn’t come at a better time, as COVID-19 deaths are rising worldwide, while developing nations are hit hardest due to lack of hospital infrastructure and medical staff.

To sum up


Researchers found that dexamethasone–a common, inexpensive steroid–was able to prevent a large number of COVID deaths in severely ill patients. Now, world governments hope to use the drug to significantly reduce coronavirus deaths. The steroid will have particular value for hospitals in developing countries, as they find it difficult to treat COVID-19 patients due to shortages of medical essentials.

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