British scientists have found the first drug to stop people dying from Covid-19 which will be rolled out on the NHS from tomorrow.
Breakthrough research has shown a common steroid given to coronavirus patients could have saved between 4,000 and 5,000 lives in the UK.
Third fewer patients on ventilators died when given dexamethasone compared to those given standard NHS care.
Leading scientists running the RECOVERY trial say the £6 drug will now become the standard of care for all Covid-19 patients on oxygen in hospitals.
Chief investigator Peter Horby, of Oxford University, said: “This is the only drug that has so far been shown to decrease mortality, and it reduced it significantly.
“It is a major breakthrough.”
The clinical trial gave 2,100 Covid-19 a low dose of dexamethasone while further 4,300 patients were given standard NHS care.
Among patients who received usual care alone, those on ventilation saw 41% dead within 28 days.
In those who received oxygen but were not placed in ventilators – the same treatment PM Boris Johnson received – the mortality rate was 25%.
By comparison, 13% of hospitalised Covid-19 patients died in the 28 day period.
Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one fifth in non-ventilated patients receiving oxygen. It had no benefit in those not needing respiratory support.
It is thought to drastically reduce inflammation in the lungs that proves fatal in some patients who rapidly deteriorate after a about seven days of symptoms.
Deputy chief investigator Prof Martin Landray, of Oxford University, said: “It is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide.
“Since the advent of this disease in the last six months, the search has been on that actually reduces the risk of dying.
“There hasn’t been one until today. The results are sufficiently clear that we can announce the results today and people can be treated this evening.
“That’s a major, major step forward. This is globally applicable.”
Until drugs have only been shown to reduce symptoms but had no impact on how many patients died.
The RECOVERY trial has enrolled 11,500 Covid-19 patients at 175 NHS hospitals to trial existing drugs known to be safe.
The practice-changing results were rushed out via an online media briefing on Wednesday after investigators worked through the weekend to analyse their findings.
Investigators said it could be made available as cheap as 80p per dose in parts of the developing world such as India.
Dr Nick Cammack, COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Lead, Wellcome Trust, said: “This is a major breakthrough: dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for COVID-19.
“Potentially preventing 1 death in every 8 ventilated patients would be remarkable. Finding effective treatments like this will transform the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world.
“While this study suggests dexamethasone only benefits severe cases, countless lives will be saved globally.”