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Coronavirus

Japan greenlights dexamethasone as second coronavirus treatment

Cheap anti-inflammatory wins fast-track approval after slashing mortality rates in UK hospital trial

A pharmacist holds an ampule of dexamethasone at a hospital in Belgium.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese health ministry has authorized the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone to treat severe cases of COVID-19 after the inexpensive steroid lowered fatalities by roughly a third in a British trial, marking the second time a candidate has won fast-track approval.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare revised a handbook Friday to list dexamethasone as an option, following up on Japan's expedited approval in May of the antiviral drug remdesivir. Recipients of either treatment will be covered by insurance.

Dexamethasone was already approved for use in Japan for lung and infectious diseases. Such companies as Nichi-Iko Pharmaceutical produce generic versions, making the drug cheap to buy.

Dexamethasone reduced the death rate in COVID-19 patients on ventilators to 29% from 40% in a University of Oxford study published in June. But it did not reduce fatalities significantly among patients not receiving respiratory support, such as ventilators or oxygen.

Japan accelerated the certification of remdesivir for severe cases of coronavirus following that drug's approval in the U.S. Remdesivir is still under patent by Gilead Sciences, making supplies limited compared with dexamethasone.

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