The World Health Organization called Monday for a rapid increase in production of the steroid dexamethasone, after British clinical trials found it had life-saving potential for critically-ill coronavirus patients.
Researchers led by a team from the University of Oxford administered dexamethasone to more than 2,000 severely ill patients hospitalised with the new coronavirus.
Among those who could only breathe with the help of a ventilator, it reduced deaths by 35 percent.
"Although the data are still preliminary, the recent finding that the steroid dexamethasone has life-saving potential for critically ill COVID-19 patients gave us a much-needed reason to celebrate," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference in Geneva.
"The next challenge is to increase production and rapidly and equitably distribute dexamethasone worldwide, focusing on where it is needed most."
"Demand has already surged, following the UK trial results showing dexamethasone's clear benefit."
"Fortunately, this is an inexpensive medicine and there are many dexamethasone manufacturers worldwide, who we are confident can accelerate production."
A low-dose steroid, dexamethasone has been on the market for over 60 years and usually serves to reduce inflammation.
The WHO emphasises that dexamethasone should only be used for patients with severe or critical disease, under close clinical supervision.
There is no evidence that the drug works for patients with mild disease or as a preventative measure, and it could cause harm, Tedros said.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has topped nine million, according to an AFP tally using official sources.
"It seems that almost every day we reach a new and grim record," said Tedros.
"Some countries are continuing to see a rapid increase in cases and deaths."
The UN health agency said it was shipping more than 140 million items of personal protective equipment, 14,000 oxygen concentrators and millions of tests to 135 countries.
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