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Corticosteroids Can Be Used In COVID-19 Treatment, New Studies Show

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three new studies strongly support using inexpensive and widely available drugs to treat people seriously ill with COVID-19. The drugs are a class of steroids, and they are proving to be the most effective treatment found to date. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Some doctors have long used steroids to treat conditions related to COVID-19, namely sepsis and acute lung injury. Steroids help tamp down the immune system's potentially deadly overreaction to an infection. But Dr. Derek Angus at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center says some doctors worried that steroids could also prevent the body from fighting off the coronavirus.

DEREK ANGUS: Giving steroids to COVID-19 could have been quite scary.

HARRIS: Back in June, a major study from the U.K. found that the steroid dexamethasone was actually a big help. It reduced deaths significantly in people with the most serious cases. That was great news, but those findings created a conundrum for Angus and other researchers who were running their own studies of steroids in COVID-19 patients.

ANGUS: Essentially overnight, because these findings were so striking, there was this sense among clinicians participating in other trials - basically all reached the same conclusion, which is, I guess we have to stop our trials.

HARRIS: It no longer felt appropriate to be giving some people steroids and others a placebo, so those studies all ended prematurely. Researchers from three research groups have now published their findings that they had gathered in the journal JAMA. Taken together, Angus says these results lend further support to the use of dexamethasone, along with another common steroid, hydrocortisone.

ANGUS: I think it's good news to actually have a strong, clear signal on what is a widely available, inexpensive class of therapies.

HARRIS: Angus also contrasts these studies with so much other research on COVID-19. All too often, studies such as those with anti-malaria drugs have not been randomized, controlled studies, which are the gold standard for medical research.

ANGUS: It is reassuring that we can get randomized trials executed successfully and rapidly in the face of a pandemic, and it definitely puts us on a sure footing.

HARRIS: Based on these new results and related analysis, the World Health Organization today updated its guidelines for steroids. It now recommends them specifically for critically ill COVID-19 patients.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "DEPARTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.