Researchers leading a major clinical trial in the UK announced on Tuesday that the drug dexamethasone had been found to cut death rates by around a third in the most severely ill among Covid-19 patients. The “first drug to be shown to improve survival” in the pandemic was hailed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “the biggest breakthrough yet” in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
The low-cost, anti-inflammatory steroid is well known in the world of sport. Dexamethasone has been used for years by sportspersons to hasten their rehabilitation from injuries and recover from infections.
The drug is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) list of prohibited substances, and sportspersons from Spain and Real Madrid star Sergio Ramos to Malaysian badminton legend Lee Chong Wei and, most recently, Indian javelin thrower Davinder Singh Kang, have been caught using it. Athletes are, however, barred from using dexamethasone only during competition — meaning, if the substance is detected prior to a competition, it will not be considered a doping offence.
Dr Ashok Ahuja, former head of sports medicine at the Sports Authority of India (SAI), said dexamethasone is a corticosteroid, an easily available medicine that prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation. Its effects are frequently seen within a day, and last for about three days.
“The drug is used when there is any inflammation in the body due to infection or injury. In sports, it is not permitted during competition because it helps all the infection and inflammation to subside and gives you a feeling of well-being. It may not directly enhance performance, but it helps in quick recovery,” Dr Ahuja said.
Kang, who has won an Asian Championship bronze, has said he took the drug for a sore throat. “I had severe sore throat and before the Indian Grand Prix 5 last year, I consulted a private physician in Patiala after taking permission from the team management. The doctor gave me two medicines, Moxitas 500 and beta dexamethasone. The dope test result is because of this medicine,” PTI quoted him as saying earlier this week.
In 2014, Lee Chong Wei reportedly used the drug to help speed up recovery following an injury he sustained before the World Championships that year. After he tested positive, he was handed a backdated eight-month ban, and was stripped of the silver medal he won at the Worlds.
A couple of years ago, the German news organisation Der Spiegel alleged Ramos took the substance before the 2017 Champions League final. While WADA rules allow players to consume the drug if they obtain a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), Real Madrid’s team doctor did not include Ramos’ usage in his report. UEFA called it an ‘administrative error’; no action was taken against Ramos.
Navin Agarwal, director general of the National Anti Doping Agency, said athletes can use this drug if they take a TUE. “There is a provision in the WADA Code that for drugs like these, you can take an exemption and use it. If an athlete follows the rules while administering this drug, he or she will not face a problem,” Agarwal said.
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