The World Health Organisation has hailed the UK breakthrough on a life-saving coronavirus treatment, but warned it should be used under close medical supervision and in only in critical cases.

Earlier this week a team of researchers at Oxford University revealed the results from a clinical trial showing that a cheap steroid named dexamethasone could help reduce the risk of death for some of the sickest Covid-19 patients in hospital.

The WHO has since urged countries not ‘to rush to change clinical practice’ and stressed at a press conference in Geneva that ‘it is exceptionally important this drug is reserved for use in severely critical patients’.

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Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said: ‘It is not a treatment for the virus itself, it is not a prevention for the virus. In fact, steroids, particularly powerful steroids, can be associated with viral replication. In other words, they can actually facilitate the division and replication of viruses in human bodies.’

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The study of dexamethasone suggests it is the first drug to reduce deaths from coronavirus, and has been described as the most important trial result for Covid-19 so far.

Researchers found the drug reduced fatalities by up to a third among patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those on oxygen.

It has been immediately approved to treat all UK hospitalised Covid-19 patients requiring oxygen, including those on ventilators.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said at the press conference: ‘Dexamethasone, a common steroid, has been shown to have a beneficial effect on those patients severely ill with Covid-19.’

But he added: ‘However, dexamethasone was shown to not have a beneficial effect for those with milder disease, who did not need respiratory support.

‘This is very welcome news for those patients with severe illness, these drugs should only be used under close clinical supervision.

‘We need more therapeutics that can be used to tackle the virus, including those with milder symptoms.’

Dr Ryan said: ‘It’s exceptionally important that the drug is used under medical supervision – this is not for mild cases, this is not for prophylaxis. This is a very, very powerful anti-inflammatory drug.

‘It can rescue patients who are in very serious condition where their lungs and their cardiovascular system around the lungs may be very inflamed.

‘So this allows possibly the patients are able to continue getting oxygen into the blood from the lungs for a very critical period by rapidly reducing inflammation and a critical period in the illness.’

He added: ‘We will pull together the necessary expert group to look at all of that, both on the research and the clinical side, and come to a conclusion around our clinical advice to countries.

‘And it’s important that each country takes that measured approach as well.

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‘This is not the time to rush to change clinical practice in a too rushed a fashion.

‘People need training, we need to understand what doses to be used, how patients are going to be clinically assessed, we need to make sure there are supplies of the drug, we need to look at a lot of things.

‘So while we’re very pleased today, we still need to see the final data, we need to adjust the clinical guidelines that will be needed and we need to support countries to both access and utilise this drug in the most appropriate way possible.’

Meanwhile, a WHO official confirmed that the Solidarity trial involving the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine had been halted after results from other trials showed no benefit.

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