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US experts have expressed some scepticism over claims made by British scientists about the effectiveness of dexamethasone on coronavirus patients – hailed by Boris Johnson as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the fight against the disease.

Researchers from the University of Oxford said trial results show the drug reduced death rates of the most severely-ill Covid-19 patients by around a third, and they would work to publish full details as soon as possible.

American doctors urged caution over the findings however – claiming the recent withdrawal of an influential Covid-19 study left them wanting to see more data.

One study on the experimental use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment was withdrawn this month by respected British journal The Lancet over data concerns.

“We have been burned before, not just during the coronavirus pandemic but even pre-Covid, with exciting results that when we have access to the data are not as convincing,” said Dr Kathryn Hibbert, director of the intensive care unit at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr Hibbert said published data would help her evaluate the findings and see which patients could benefit the most and at what dose.

“I am very hopeful this is true because it would be a huge step forward in being able to help our patients,” she said – but added she would not change any practice at her hospital at this point.

The UK government has already approved the use of the cheap and widely-available steroid on coronavirus patients in NHS hospitals.

Professor Peter Horby of Oxford University said the Recovery Trial project findings show the drug would, on average, prevent one death in every eight Covid-19 patients in intensive care units.

Dr Thomas McGinn, deputy physician-in-chief at New York’s largest healthcare system, Northwell Health, said some US physicians are already using some steroids on coronavirus patients on a case-by-case basis.

“We have to see what the study looks like given the current environment of retractions,” said McGinn. “I’ll just wait to see the real data, see if it’s peer reviewed and gets published in a real journal.”

a close up of a person: Dexamethasone tablets are widely-sold in pharmacies across the UK (Getty) © Provided by The Independent Dexamethasone tablets are widely-sold in pharmacies across the UK (Getty)

The University of Washington professor of medicine Dr Mark Wurfel urged the researchers to put out data before official publication. “That would be very, very helpful in terms of helping us align our patient populations with theirs and decide whether it’s appropriate to apply this therapy to our patients.”

On Wednesday health secretary Matt Hancock hailed the findings of Oxford’s Recovery Trial as “one of the best pieces of news we’ve had through this whole crisis”.

Many independent drug experts in the UK have also reacted positively to the announcement.

Dr Ayfer Ali, an assistant professor in drug repurposing at Warwick Business School, said: “The results seem to be extremely encouraging and this will be now one of the most important tools against Covid-19 in seriously ill patients.”

Boris Johnson says dexamethasone ‘can now be made available across the NHS’

Dr Ali added: “Now we have to wait for the full results to be peer-reviewed and remember that it is not a cure for all, just one more tool.”

Dr Nick Cammack, the Covid-19 therapeutics accelerator lead at Wellcome Trust, described it as a “major breakthrough”, adding: “Dexamethasone is the first and only drug that has made a significant difference to patient mortality for Covid-19.”

Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, added: “This outcome for patients suffering from severe Covid-19 in need of respiratory assistance is of tremendous importance.

“Now that effective treatments for Covid-19 are being confidently discovered through trials on the scale of Recovery, there is realistic scope for further improving the clinical management of this devastating disease.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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