Life-saving coronavirus drug 'promising' for Belgium, state virologist says

Life-saving coronavirus drug 'promising' for Belgium, state virologist says
Prof. Steven Van Gucht © Belga

A generic and "remarkably" cheap drug hailed as the first life-saving coronavirus treatment could be used to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients in Belgian hospitals, state virologist Steven Van Gucht said.

Van Gucht said that results of a clinical trial in the UK hailed as a breakthrough by researchers and welcomed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) looked "quite promising."

"This is why I suspect that the drug will also be used in our hospitals," the state virologist with federal public health institute Sciensano told Le Soir.

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On Tuesday, UK researchers hailed a breakthrough as they announced that dexamethasone, a cheap and widely available steroid, successfully reduced mortality among patients with the most serious complications of the disease caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19).

Researcher Martin Landray of Oxford University said that the results showed that giving the generic drug to Covid-19 patients on oxygen and on ventilators saved lives “at a remarkably low cost.”

"They are good results, mortality rates were reduced by 20 to 30% on patients suffering from a lack of oxygen or requiring mechanical ventilation," Van Gucht said. 

Van Gucht said that Sciensano, charged with issuing guidelines to hospitals and health care workers in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, needed more information on the study to be made available before acting on it.

"First, we need to know what category of patients was included in the study and we also need more information on the dosages used and the time when the drug was administered," he said. "It's very important, because [using] the wrong dose can be disastrous."

"Once the details of the study are available, it can go quickly from there and the guidelines will probably be adjusted," he added.

Van Gucht confirmed that dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, was cheap and commonly used but urged caution on its use especially on patients with mild Covid-19.

"It's very cheap and easy to find, but it's a double-edged sword: it suppresses immune response to reduce inflammation but it can also open the door to coronavirus or other germs."

"It cannot be used on the initial stages [of Covid-19] when the immune system must fight the virus because it could have the opposite effect," he said. "It is only in the later phase, when there is serious damage in the lungs, that dexamethasone can be useful for hospitalised patients because it can contain lung damage."

In announcing the results, researchers in the study also said that it remained unclear whether the steroid drug was effective on patients with mild symptoms, and said people should not take it on its own.

In welcoming the results of the trials, the WHO also said that the benefits of using the drug were only seen "in patients seriously ill with COVID-19 [and not] in patients with milder disease."

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times 

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