A cheap and widely accessible steroid called dexamethasone has become the first drug that has been shown to save lives among COVID-19 patients.

Scientists have hailed it as a “major breakthrough” after trials showed that the drug reduced death rates by around a third of the most severely ill COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.

Dexamethasone is used to reduce inflammation in other diseases and the success of the drug suggest that it should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease.

“This is a result that shows that if patients who have COVID-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” said Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial.

“It’s going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than STG50 ($A90) you can treat eight patients and save a life,” he told reporters in an online briefing.

Co-lead investigator Peter Horby said that dexamethasone was “the only drug that’s so far shown to reduce mortality and it reduces it significantly”.

“It is a major breakthrough,” he said.

“Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 431,000 globally.

“The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients,” Horby said.

This article originally appeared on Over60.