South Africa to start using new drug on Covid-19 patients

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JOHANNESBURG – The Health Department and a Ministerial Advisory Committee are considering
treating critically-ill COVID-19 patients with the breakthrough drug, dexamethasone.

Studies have shown it can be life-saving for those on ventilators.
The Health Department’s Deputy Director-General Dr Anban Pillay explained that dexamethasone is a corticosteroid that is used to suppress inflammation.

Dr Pillay said since some COVID-19 patients experience a “cytokine storm”, which is an immune response that results in uncontrollable inflammation due to the body attacking its own cells, a corticosteroid can be an effective way of treating it in the advanced stages.

Pharmaceutical giant Aspen Pharmacare has said that it is ready to scale up production of the generic version of this anti-inflammatory drug.

A mass treatment trial led by Oxford University this week found that a low-dose steroid named dexamethasone could reduce mortality among ventilated patients by a third.

Durban-based Aspen, the largest drug producer in Africa, will now “ramp up production” of the drug, Aspen senior executive Stavros Nicolaou said.

Dexamethasone has been on the market for over 60 years and usually serves to reduce inflammation.
“We are still getting to terms with what the global demands will be,” Nicolaou said.

“Obviously, if this surges through the roof, you are going to have some constraints.”

The World Health Organization has flagged further research on the cheap and widely available steroid as a “priority”, which is likely to lead to a surge in demand.

The health ministry has recognised the Britain-led dexamethasone trials as an “important breakthrough” that would be “easily implementable in our country”.

“The Department of Health… has recommended that dexamethasone can be considered for use on patients on ventilators and on oxygen supply,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation this week.

“We believe that this will improve our management of the disease among those who are most severely affected.”

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