Dexamethasone, an inexpensive and widely available steroid, has saved around one million lives worldwide since its discovery as an effective treatment for COVID-19 in a clinical trial in the NHS.
New figures, published on Tuesday, show that use of the drug has so far saved 22,000 lives in the UK and an estimated one million worldwide.
Since the RECOVERY trial, led by University of Oxford scientists and involving tens of thousands of patients and 175 NHS hospitals, announced the results just nine months ago, dexamethasone has been used to treat millions of seriously unwell patients with COVID.
The RECOVERY researchers found that dexamethasone cut the risk of death by a third for COVID patients on ventilators and for those on oxygen it cut deaths by almost a fifth.
Previously used for a wide range of ailments, including allergies and skin conditions, the drug is now being used around the globe to improve survival in patients with COVID who need oxygen or ventilation.
The NHS moved quickly to use the breakthrough research in hospital settings. Dexamethasone was made available to patients on hospital wards in England just hours after the results were announced in June.
The new figures are revealed in a paper for the NHS England board looking at how the health service has responded to the coronavirus pandemic, the greatest health emergency since it was founded.
NHS chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, said: “Thanks to the exceptional work of our researchers, NHS staff and patients, around one million lives may have been saved around the world. Research that would usually take years produced answers in record time – with results that have reverberated across the globe. Just as this virus has spread across borders, so too must the treatments and vaccinations that are humanity’s shared ‘exit strategy’ from this pandemic.”
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS Medical Director said: “None of us have previously lived through a year like this one, in which NHS staff responded quickly to care for the first cases last January and went on to expertly treat 380,000 hospitalised COVID patients. At the same time they kept routine services going for millions of people, as well as rolling out the biggest and fastest vaccination programme in our history, giving more than 23 million people vital protection against the virus.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This global pandemic has proven that the UK is a world-class force in identifying and rolling out lifesaving treatments to NHS patients.
“Finding dexamethasone through our government-funded RECOVERY trial was a true success story for British research and its fantastic to see the real impact it’s having saving lives here and around the world.
“Our work is never done and we are continuing our search for the best treatments the world has to offer for COVID-19, and build on the success of the vaccine rollout, to save even more lives as we get back to normality.”
As well as being at the forefront of clinical research, NHS leaders today paid tribute to the agile and rapid response from staff since last March.
From opening quarantine centres and Nightingale hospitals in a matter of days after the pandemic was declared to treating the first two COVID patients in Newcastle at the end of January last year, the NHS in England provided specialist care for more than 380,000 people.
In the year since the first patient was treated by the NHS on 30th January 2020, one person with the virus was admitted to critical care every thirty minutes.
More than 100,000 patients with the virus were admitted to hospitals this January alone – at times, one new COVID patient was admitted every 30 seconds – and critical care capacity was doubled in most hospitals with some increasing by over 80%.
While NHS staff went above and beyond to care for COVID patients they also successfully cared for those with other conditions.
At every point of the pandemic, the NHS looked after twice as many inpatients for non COVID reasons as COVID, with nearly 20 million people receiving emergency care in England’s A&Es in 2020, and over 250,000 people starting cancer treatment and 10 million people starting routine care between March and January.
NHS England spent £160 million on COVID-kind cancer drugs which enabled patients to receive chemotherapy and other treatments more safely.
COVID-secure cancer hubs were also set up to keep surgery going while minimising the risk of infection.
As well as offering face to face appointments to those who needed them, GPs adapted services to provide some care virtually, which meant more than 280 million appointments could be carried out overall.
The NHS has also led the world on vaccinations, delivering the first Pfizer and Oxford/Astra-Zeneca jabs outside of a clinical trial.
More than 23 million people in England, over half the adult population, have now received their first vaccination in just over 100 days.