Two years on: the COVID-19 treatment that saved millions

Medical syringe and medical bottles labelled dexamethasone on a medical table

Two years ago today, the discovery of the first-ever lifesaving treatment for COVID-19, called dexamethasone, was announced to the world.

In the following nine months, dexamethasone, an inexpensive, readily available steroid, saved an estimated one million lives worldwide, including 22,000 in the UK.

The treatment was found by researchers from the Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy (RECOVERY trial), one of the world’s fastest-recruiting treatment trials in medical history.

It was primarily funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) with a joint investment of £2.1 million. This was organised after a call for research proposals in early February 2020.


This funding enabled the RECOVERY Trial to be announced on the first day of the UK lockdown (23 March 2020).

Within 15 days of the announcement, more than 1,000 participants around the UK had joined the trial. Five weeks later, that number had risen to 10,000.

In the first 100 days alone, the trial produced three ground-breaking results that changed the world, including:

  • the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which had been suggested as a possible treatment by key figures in the public eye, was shown to have no clinical benefit (5 June)
  • dexamethasone, the first ever coronavirus (COVID-19) treatment, was proven to reduce deaths by up to one third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications (16 June)
  • lopinavir-ritonavir, an antiviral treatment, was shown to be ineffective at preventing deaths in hospitalised patients (29 June).

Video credit: UKRI
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

Tackling the pandemic

Professor Patrick Chinnery, Clinical Director at UKRI’s Medical Research Council, said:

Many patient lives have been saved by using dexamethasone in patients with severe COVID-19.

Two years on, we reflect on the incredible efforts from all those involved in the trials, which helped us tackle the pandemic.

Ray of hope

John Hanna, from Inverclyde Scotland, was one of the first participants in the RECOVERY Trial for dexamethasone.

He said:

I was so ill with COVID-19 in April 2020 I was placed in a medically-induced coma.

My wife enrolled me in the RECOVERY trial as a last ray of hope for treatment. That decision changed everything.

Without the doctors and research teams working around the clock to find out which treatments worked, and which didn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.

Video credit: UKRI
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript are available on YouTube.

Top image:  Credit: digicomphoto, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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