British scientists in Oxford work to find coronavirus treatments. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Dexamethasone, a widely available steroid, appears to be a life-saving coronavirus treatment, reducing deaths among the sickest patients in a large, controlled clinical trial, British researchers said Tuesday.

Why it matters: This would be the first treatment with the potential to save lives — and it's an existing, generic drug, meaning it could be widely available and relatively cheap.

  • Oxford researchers leading the trial, called RECOVERY, said in a statement that dexamethasone cut the death rate by one-third among patients who were on a ventilator, and by one-fifth among patients who were on supplemental oxygen.
  • It showed no benefit for the healthiest patients.

Between the lines: While this is a large, controlled trial, the results were made public only in a press release. They have not been peer-reviewed, or published formally at all.

  • These kinds of incremental, one-off statements have clouded the picture of how well other coronavirus treatments work.
  • The Oxford researchers said they are "now working to publish the full details as soon as possible."

Where it stands: Only one other drug has been shown so far to be helpful in treating coronavirus.

  • That drug, remdesivir, helps healthier patients get out of the hospital faster, but does not appear to improve the odds of survival for seriously ill patients. Dexamethasone would be the only drug to do that — so far.
  • Another hyped treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which was touted and taken by President Trump, had its emergency use authorization for coronavirus use pulled by the FDA on Monday.

The bottom line: "If this holds up — this is very good news indeed!" tweeted Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard's Global Health Institute.

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