As medicines and vaccines to treat Covid-19 come under intense global scrutiny, the World Health Organisation chief pointed to the need for equitable supplies of dexamethasone for possible use in critical patients around the world.

“The next challenge is to increase production and rapidly and equitably distribute dexamethasone worldwide, focusing on where it is needed most,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that demand had surged for the drug following the UK trial results that showed clear benefits. “Fortunately, this is an inexpensive medicine and there are many dexamethasone manufacturers worldwide, who we are confident can accelerate production,” he said, in a media briefing.

Just last week, early results from an Oxford-led trial said that dexamethasone reduced mortality by one-third for patients on ventilators and one-fifth in those needing oxygen. The WHO has, in subsequent briefings, cautioned that the drug should be used only in critically-ill Covid patients and under medical supervision. “There is no evidence this drug works for patients with mild disease or as a preventative measure, and it could cause harm,” he said.

Needs, not means

“Guided by solidarity, countries must work together to ensure supplies are prioritised for countries where there are large numbers of critically ill patients, and that supplies remain available to treat other diseases for which it is needed,” he said, adding that transparency and constant monitoring were key to ensuring that “needs dictate supplies, rather than means”.

“It is also important to check that suppliers can guarantee quality, as there is a high risk of substandard or falsified products entering the market,” he cautioned.

Further, Tedros said, WHO was supporting countries with essential supplies of personal protective equipment and laboratory diagnostics. “One way we’re doing that is through the Covid-19 Supply Portal, an online platform through which countries that need supplies can enter requests.” So far, 48 countries have made requests for supplies, with a value of $92 million. WHO was also in the process of shipping more than 140 million items of personal protective equipment to 135 countries, 14,000 oxygen concentrators and millions of tests, he said.

New grim record

The WHO chief’s briefing came against the backdrop of the biggest single-day spike in Covid-19 cases, at 1,83,000 new cases, he said, adding “every day is a new grim record.” More than 8.8 million cases have been reported to WHO, and more than 465,000 people have lost their lives.

“Some countries that have successfully suppressed transmission are now seeing an upswing in cases as they reopen their societies and economies,” he observed. “All countries are facing a delicate balance, between protecting their people, while minimising the social and economic damage. It’s not a choice between lives and livelihoods. Countries can do both,” he said, urging countries to be careful and creative in finding solutions that enable people to stay safe while getting on with their lives.