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A cheap and widely used steroid called dexamethasone has become the first drug shown to be able to save the lives of COVID-19 patients in what scientists said is a “major breakthrough” in the coronavirus pandemic.

Trial results announced on Tuesday showed dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in other diseases such as arthritis, reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.

The preliminary results, which have not been peer-reviewed, suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease, said the researchers who led the trials.

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