A cheap steroid available from R149 ($8.71) an injection in South Africa is being hailed as a breakthrough treatment used to reduce fatalities amongst critical COVID-19 patients.
Known as dexamethasone, the drug has been proven to reduce deaths by one-third in patients on ventilators, according to the University of Oxford. It reduced fatalities by a fifth among those who received oxygen support.
These new findings came from the world’s largest trial for testing existing treatments for COVID-19 patients. More than 11,500 patients in 175 UK hospitals are part of the trial, and more than 2,100 of them received 6mg of dexamethasone once per day.
The study found that the steroid has no effect on patients with mild cases (people not receiving oxygen or ventilation). Daily doses of dexamethasone could prevent one in eight ventilated patient deaths and save one out of every 25 patients requiring oxygen
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the drug’s usage as the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the country’s coronavirus fight.
“It’s a startling result,” Kenneth Baillie, an intensive-care physician at the University of Edinburgh, who serves on the steering committee of the trial, told Nature magazine. “It will clearly have a massive global impact.”
In South Africa, the regulated price for dexamethasone injections are between R149 and R179. The drug is most often used to treat arthritis, as well as breathing disorders – which may be the reason it is so successful with COVID-19.
According to Business Insider, South Africa’s pharmaceutical giant Aspen produces dexamethasone right in the country. CEO Stephen Saad has confirmed that there should be sufficient supplies to meet the local demand.
“It all depends on where and when we get the surges. We should be fine for South Africa, [as] we make this in South Africa,” he says.
South Africa faced a shortage of dexamethasone, which is also used to treat leukaemia and terminal brain tumours as recently as in 2016 after Merck & Company discontinued production in SA, the health journalism organisation Bhekisisa reported at the time. Since this shortage, Aspen started production, and other companies including Adcock Ingram and Sanofi are registered to distribute dexamethasone in South Africa.
Aspen is also a major supplier of the medicine in other markets, including the UK.
“The other registrations largely in Europe are manufactured there. We were able to largely meet the massive surges in anaesthetics in Europe and we were a major supplier of these products to our European patient base,” says Saad.