• The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 17 June, to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • Caution was urged following initial promising results in a UK drug trial.
  • Dexamethasone has been shown to reduce mortality in the most critically ill patients.

The WHO welcomes initial promising results from the UK RECOVERY trial into the use of dexamethasone in treating COVID-19, said Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But, the organization also urged caution in use of the drug.

The drug - a steriod - was shown to be effective in treating the most serious cases. It reduces mortality by around a fifth for patients receiving oxygen alone, and by around a third for patients requiring a ventilator, Dr Tedros explained.

Proceed with caution

Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, also welcomed the results. "It's great news," he said. "But, it's part of the answer on the clinical side."

He also cautioned that it's vital the drug is only used under medical supervision and not as a preventative measure. "It is not a treatment for the virus itself," he explained. It's important its use is reserved for severely ill patients.

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His message was echoed by Dr Janet Diaz, Head of Clinical Care, who reiterated the message that the drug was not shown to have an effect on patients with mild cases.

Equally, we musn't rush to update the clinical advice - appropriate doses, how people are assessed, training for example - urged Dr Ryan. "We still need to see the data, we need to adjust the clinical guidelines that will be needed and we need to support countries to both access and utilize this drug in the most appropriate way possible."

It's significant, but it's still just preliminary data from one study, he said.

Don't forget other diseases

Dr Tedros also emphasized that COVID-19 is just one of the threats that the world's most vulnerable communities face and called for essential services to continue.

"COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the world, and one of the things that has been severely affected is our neglected tropical disease programmes worldwide," explained Dr Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director, Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases.

The impact has been particularly strong in Africa, with mass drug administration programmes stopped across the continent. The organization is looking to the future - how to carry out these programmes more effectively and to ensure the safety of all involved, she added.