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COVID-19: Dexamethasone may have saved 22,000 lives in the UK © Getty Images

COVID-19: Dexamethasone may have saved 22,000 lives in the UK

Published: 23rd March, 2021 at 09:49
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The widely available steroid may have saved a million lives around the world, according to NHS England. However, experts are dubious about the exact numbers.

Using dexamethasone to treat coronavirus patients may have saved a million lives around the world since its discovery, NHS England has said.


The inexpensive and widely available steroid was found to reduce deaths from COVID-19 in June 2020 following a clinical trial.

Around 22,000 lives have been saved by the drug in the UK, according to new figures, and an estimated one million worldwide. The new figures are revealed in a paper for NHS England.

Scientists from the University of Oxford were the first to find that dexamethasone could reduce deaths from COVID-19 significantly in a clinical trial known as RECOVERY. The researchers discovered it cut the risk of death by a third for COVID-19 patients on ventilators, while deaths fell by almost a fifth for those on oxygen.

Scientists reported their findings last year in June and the drug was made available to patients on hospital wards in England hours later.

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However, Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, who was not involved with the study, believes the results should be taken with a pinch of salt.

“I’m pretty dubious about the exact figures for lives saved by the use of dexamethasone. It’s definitely true that large numbers of people are alive today because they were given dexamethasone, but some of the numbers do seem inappropriately precise," he said.

"Details on exactly how this number was calculated are vague. It is based on results from a paper published in Nature Communications last month, but which itself reads a little oddly until you realise that a preprint version of it appeared in July last year.

"I don’t doubt that many lives were saved – but to attach a precise figure when there is probably still substantial uncertainty does seem to me to be using the number only for rhetorical purposes rather than being appropriately informative.


“I should make it very clear that I’m not running down the wonderful work of the UK team that developed and trialled the dexamethasone treatment. It’s extremely important, the work was carried out in conditions of extreme urgency, and huge numbers of lives have been saved, whatever the exact figure might be."

Can I get the coronavirus from a parcel?

It’s hypothetically possible, but parcels pose a very small risk.

A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard (and paper is likely to be similar). So for the parcel to be contaminated, someone with COVID-19 would have had to touch or cough on your parcel within the past day.

The chances of this are low, but common sense advice would be to wash your hands with soap and water after opening the parcel, and then again after you’ve disposed of the packaging – especially if you or anyone else in your household is in one of the vulnerable groups.

The same study found that the virus can survive for up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel – which is why door handles are particularly good vectors for the virus. So, if you receive anything packaged in plastic, such as takeaway deliveries, make sure to wash your hands after touching it, and especially before eating.

We don’t yet know how long the virus can survive on smartphone screens, but it’s likely to be up to three days. This means that you should ideally clean your phone with disinfectant wipes (Apple recommends 70 per cent isopropyl alcohol wipes), at least once a day.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.


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