A £5 drug which cuts the risk of dying from Covid-19 by a fifth is to be instantly rolled out across the NHS.
The cheap steroids were found to have remarkable results when tested on critically ill patients, including those in 88 NHS hospitals.
An international team of researchers analysed seven trials involving three different types of anti-inflammatory corticosteroids.
The study, which was coordinated by the World Health Organisation and analysed by National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) at the University of Bristol, looked at patient mortality in a 28-day period after treatment.
It found treatment with one of three types of corticosteroid led to an estimated 20 per cent reduction in the risk of death.
The World Health Organisation will now issue new guidelines to include the use of steroids to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients.
And the head of the NHS said the treatments – already used to treat common complaints, including eczema, arthritis and painful joints – will now be routinely offered across the health service.
Researchers said it was equivalent to about 68 per cent of critically ill patients surviving after treatment with the steroids, compared to approximately 60 per cent surviving without them.
The results of the study, which involved the drugs dexamethasone, hydrocortisone and methylprednisolone, were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Wednesday.
Jonathan Sterne, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said: “Steroids are a cheap and readily available medication, and our analysis has confirmed that they are effective in reducing deaths among the people most severely affected by Covid-19.
“The results were consistent across the trials and show benefit regardless of age or sex.”
The seven control trials recruited 1,703 critically ill coronavirus patients from 12 countries from February to June.
The study included patients who were taking part in the Oxford University-based Recovery trial, which used the drug dexamethasone.
Patients were randomised to either receive one of the three drugs or a placebo.
Researchers said the mortality results were consistent across the seven trials, with dexamethasone and hydrocortisone giving “similar effects”.
However there were too few patients involved in tests of methylprednisolone to enable researchers to estimate its impact with precision.
The study found that the steroids benefited patients regardless of whether they were on a ventilator.
However, researchers said it appeared to have a greater effect on those who did not require medication to support their blood pressure.
The Recovery trial, which used dexamethasone, found the drug reduced deaths by up to a third among patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those on oxygen. Scientists from Brazil, Canada, China, France, Spain, the UK and the US were involved in the study.
Scientists said it had been an “extraordinary achievement” to carry out such a major randomised controlled trial at such speed.
Lead researcher Professor Anthony Gordon from Imperial College London said: “At the beginning of the year at times it felt almost hopeless, knowing that we had no specific treatments. It was a very worrying time. Yet less than six months later, we've found clear, reliable evidence in high-quality clinical trials of how we can tackle this devastating disease.”
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “One of the distinctive benefits of having our NHS is that we've been able to mobilise quickly and at scale to help researchers test and develop proven coronavirus treatments.
“Just as we did with dexamethasone, the NHS will now take immediate action to ensure that patients who could benefit from treatment with hydrocortisone do so, adding a further weapon in the armoury in the worldwide fight against Covid-19.”
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer said: “These findings offer further evidence that corticosteroids can be an important part of Covid-19 treatment for severe patients.”