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PM states "genuine cause to celebrate" over breakthrough drug

16 June 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

On what has been a busy day, even by political standards, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered the Downing Street daily briefing. Johnson was very keen to focus on a “major breakthrough” regarding dexamethasone, which is the first drug that has been proven to reduce the risk of death for Covid-19 patients. 

In other news today the ONS released the latest job figures, the government u-turned on its free school meals plans and two major government departments are to be merged. Michael Gove also provided an update on the EU Brexit negotiations, although that no longer makes the front pages these days!  He stated resolve on “both sides” to “get things done in July” and of not wanting the process to drag on. 

Early this afternoon, Professor Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) announced the outcome of a drug trial as "the most important trial result for Covid-19 so far". It has shown that Covid-19 patients who require oxygen or ventilation are less likely to die after taking the steroid dexamethasone.

Described by Johnson as the “biggest breakthrough yet”, a team of UK scientists, backed by government funding, have found a proven treatment that reduces the risk of death from Covid-19. Stating “genuine cause to celebrate”, Johnson allowed Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Advisor) and Professor Peter Horby (Chair of the UK government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group)  to explain the progress of the “Recovery Study”. 

The drug dexamethasone is available across the NHS, and steps have been taken so that there are enough supplies even in the event of a second peak. Taking time to thank all those involved in the development, Sir Patrick was keen to particularly thank all the patients who were involved in the trial – the biggest trial of its sort in the world. More than 175 hospitals were involved, 11,500 patients and six different drugs. 

Professor Peter Horby, who has been leading on the trial, described the drug as an “old drug”, that some say is “very boring”, but one that is very cheap and “almost on every pharmacy shelf in every hospital”, as well as being available throughout the world.  It is the first drug which has been shown to reduce the risk of death to patients with Covid-19. 

The drug has different treatment effects on different groups after ten days of treatment:

  • In ventilated patients, the drug reduces the risk of death by about 35%;
  • In patients who require oxygen, it reduces the risk of death by about 20%;
  • It does not appear to benefit patients outside of these groups. 

Horby predicted that for every eight intensive care patients who are treated with the drug, one life will be saved, with the total cost for all eight patients’ treatment being about £40 – quite “remarkable”, in Horby’s words.  

There are four drugs left in the trial, and Horby is hopeful that more results can be found to build on this foundation. It is “the start of something”, according to Sir Patrick. 

Elsewhere, this morning saw the release of new jobs figures from the ONS reporting that employers had lost 612,000 jobs by early May compared with March. The number of job vacancies in May had also fallen to a record low.

In other news today, it has been announced following a government review that the Department for International Development is to be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, forming a new “Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office”. Described by Leader of the Opposition as “the tactics of pure distraction”, the plans have been opposed by three former Prime Ministers: David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, crucially the commitment of spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign development remains. Johnson stated that the aim of reducing poverty would remain central, but that the Foreign Secretary would have the power to decide which counties did and did not receive aid, with relevant Ambassadors leading strategies in each country. Currently the UK has the third biggest aid budget in the world. 

Finally, in perhaps the first time that a footballer has substantially influenced government policy, and indeed a u-turn, Marcus Rashford’s campaign to have the government fund school meals for eligible children in England over the summer holidays has been a success. Eligible children will get a six-week “Covid summer food fund” voucher to cover meals during the break in what Downing Street states is a “one-off decision based on an unprecedented situation”. The devolved administrations have made similar pledges.