Potentially life-saving coronavirus treatment dexamethasone could have ‘immediate impact,’ former FDA chief says

A cheap steroid called dexamethasone could have an “immediate impact” on how doctors treat the most severe cases of Covid-19, potentially reducing the mortality rate of the disease, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday.

In one study, the drug cut the risk of death by a third for Covid-19 patients on ventilators and by a fifth for those on supplemental oxygen. The underlying data from the study has yet to be published, but the U.K. researchers who led the trial described the results as a “ground-breaking.”

“It’s going to probably have an immediate impact on what doctors are doing in the ICU setting,” Gottlieb said Tuesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in response to the news. “This is an important finding. It’s going to change dogma.”

Dexamethasone, a steroid medication, is cheap, widely available and doctors are accustomed to prescribing it, Gottlieb said, noting that more research is needed to confirm the study’s findings, but that the study was “well designed.”

The drug is the first to show signs that it can improve survival among Covid-19 patients, the researchers said.

The coronavirus has infected more than 8.06 million people around the world, killing at least 437,532 people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The study came out of the U.K.-led Recovery trial, a large randomized, controlled trial of a variety of coronavirus treatments. The researchers treated more than 2,000 hospitalized patients with dexamethasone and compared their outcomes with more than 4,000 patients who received “usual care alone.”

“Dexamethasone is the first drug to be shown to improve survival in COVID-19,” Peter Horby, an Oxford University professor and one of the chief investigators for the trial, said in a statement. “The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients.”

The researchers said the drug does not appear to benefit patients with more mild symptoms.

“This is a result that shows that if patients who have Covid-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” said Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor who is co-leading the trial.

There is still no drug that has been proven effective and approved by the U.S. FDA for the treatment of Covid-19. Gilead’s remdesivir has received an emergency use authorization for the treatment of Covid-19 and early studies have indicated it can shorten the recovery time for Covid-19 patients. 

“This is a very positive finding and it’s a robust finding. It’s a well-done study,” Gottlieb said. “It certainly suggests that this could be beneficial in this setting. This is an important finding here today.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer and biotech company Illumina.

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