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VERIFY: Here's what you should know about the drug dexamethasone

A study found that a steroid could help stave off death from COVID-19. But, what exactly is it?
Credit: AP
Packages of Dexamethasone are displayed in a pharmacy, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Omaha, Neb. Researchers in England said Tuesday they have the first evidence that the drug can improve COVID-19 survival. The cheap, widely available steroid called dexamethasone reduced deaths by up to one third in severely ill hospitalized patients. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Dexamethasone became the latest drug to get attention for its potential in treating COVID, when a study declared this week there were promising results in trials with the drug.

But what exactly is dexamethasone? How is it different from other drugs that have been declared potential treatments?

WHAT WE FOUND

Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid -- a type of steroid -- used to reduce inflammation and lower the body’s immune response. It’s used to treat a number of different illnesses, including cancer. The CDC said it can be used to treat high altitude sickness, which some doctors have said affects the body similarly as COVID-19.

It entered news headlines after the RECOVERY Trial issued a press release reporting on promising results. They said they found the drug “reduces death by up to one third in hospitalized patients with severe respiratory complications of COVID-19.”

There are some things that are important to make clear about the findings the researchers released. 

Doctors found the drug reduced death only in patients on ventilators and patients receiving oxygen. “There was no benefit among those patients who did not require respiratory support,” the researchers said. That means that this drug is not being recognized as a cure for mildly ill people to use in order to recover, but it is instead something that could potentially prevent a sick person, who is seriously ill, from dying.

It’s also important to note that the results of the study have yet to be peer reviewed -- or even released. Researchers said in a press release, “given the public health importance of these results, we are now working to publish the full details as soon as possible.” Once the results have been published, they can be peer-reviewed and agencies like the FDA and CDC can give guidance on their use.

Nonetheless, the findings are promising. This could be the first drug to reduce death from COVID-19 and doctors said in their findings that dexamethasone is a low-cost drug.

The "RECOVERY Trial" has researched a number of potential drugs and treatments for COVID-19. The research released earlier this month found there was no clinical benefit in the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.