After UK researchers announced that a steroid drug has been found to significantly increase the chances of survival for those seriously ill as a result of the coronavirus, a report Wednesday revealed that some Israeli hospitals have for months been including it in the range of medicines they use to treat the disease.
Doctors at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, and Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem had been giving dexamethasone to some patients since the outbreak began earlier this year, Channel 13 news reported.
Israel has had a relatively low death toll compared to other countries in the world, with 303 fatalities out of 19,894 diagnosed cases.
Ronen Ben-Ami, head of the infectious diseases department at Ichilov, told the Ynet website in a report published Thursday that one approach to treating the disease is to use drugs that reduce an inflammatory response in the body.
Dr Ronen Ben-Ami, head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Ichilov Hospital. (Ichilov Hospital)
“The disease has inflammatory properties,” he said. “Steroids are a drug that can suppress the immune response.”
Ben-Ami said some of those who received the drug did not deteriorate to the point where they needed ventilation.
However, he said it was still not clear just how effective the drug is.
“The mortality rate in Israel as a general rule is lower than other countries around the world, and I can’t say if that is tied to dexamethasone or not,” he noted.
On Tuesday researchers in the UK announced the results of a study they said showed evidence that dexamethasone can improve COVID-19 survival by up to one-third in severely ill hospitalized patients.
Researchers said they would publish the results soon, without giving a timeline. The study is a large, strict test that randomly assigned 2,104 patients to get the drug and compared them with 4,321 patients getting only usual care.
The drug was given either orally or through an IV. It reduced deaths by 35% in patients who needed treatment with breathing machines and by 20% in those only needing supplemental oxygen. It did not appear to help less severely ill patients.
The trial results are particularly promising as around 40% of COVID-19 patients who require a ventilator end up dying, often because of the body’s uncontrolled inflammatory response to the virus.
It is the same study that earlier this month showed the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was not working against the coronavirus.
The study enrolled more than 11,000 patients in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who were given either standard of care or that plus one of several treatments: the HIV combo drug lopinavir-ritonavir, the antibiotic azithromycin; the steroid dexamethasone, the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab, or plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 that contains antibodies to fight the virus.
Following the research announcement, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Tuesday the UK would start administering dexamthasone to COVID-19 patients.