Signs of hope have begun to show in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday, but it added that countries must continue to work on prevention measures to limit the spread of the new coronavirus infection.

While cases are “still rapidly rising” in many regions of the world, there are “green shoots of hope”, the WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an online media briefing.

Tedros also said it was “very welcome news” that the initial results of a clinical trial had shown that a cheap, common steroid known as dexamethasone can help save critically ill patients.

Trial results announced on Tuesday by researchers in Britain showed dexamethasone, used since the 1960s to reduce inflammation in diseases such as arthritis, cut death rates by around a third among the most severely ill COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has hailed dexamethasone as a “lifesaving scientific breakthrough” to treat severely ill coronavirus patients. Initial clinical trial results in UK show dexamethasone, a steroid, can be lifesaving for patients who are critically ill with Covid-19. For patients on ventilators, the treatment was shown to reduce mortality by about one third, and for patients requiring only oxygen, mortality was cut by about one fifth, according to preliminary findings shared with WHO.

The benefit was only seen in patients seriously ill with COVID-19, and was not observed in patients with milder disease, WHO said.

Dexamethasone is a steroid that has been used since the 1960s to reduce inflammation in a range of conditions, including inflammatory disorders. It has been listed on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977 in multiple formulations, and is currently off-patent and affordably available in most countries.

Up to now there has been no effective treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus which has claimed nearly 440,000 lives since it first appeared in China in December.

The world health body said researchers have shared initial insights about the results of the trial with WHO, and it is looking forward to the full data analysis in the coming days.

“WHO will coordinate a meta-analysis to increase our overall understanding of this intervention. WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used in COVID-19,” said the world health body.

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