ATLANTA (AP) — As nations grapple with new outbreaks and spiking death tolls from the coronavirus, a commonly available drug appeared Tuesday to offer hope that the most seriously ill could have a better chance of survival.
The pandemic has forced countries to impose lockdowns and tough restrictions on daily life and travel, but infections have surged as they eased these rules and reopened their economies. With no vaccine available and much still unknown about the virus, researchers in England announced the first drug shown to save lives.
The drug, called dexamethasone, reduced deaths by 35% in patients who needed treatment with breathing machines and by 20% in those only needing supplemental oxygen, researchers in England said. It did not appear to help less ill patients.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the drug was the “biggest breakthrough yet” in treating the coronavirus, and top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called it “a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have.”
Britain is making dexamethasone available to patients on the country’s National Health Service. The U.K. Department of Health said the drug had been approved to treat all hospitalized COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen, effective immediately. It said the U.K. had stockpiled enough to treat 200,000 patients.
“It’s on almost every pharmacy shelf in every hospital, it’s available throughout the world, and it’s very cheap,” said Peter Horby of Oxford University, one of the leaders of the trial that randomly assigned 2,104 patients to get the drug and compared them with 4,321 patients getting only usual care.
Since the virus first emerged in China late last year and spread around the globe, there have been more than 8 million confirmed cases and more than 435,000 deaths.
Full Coverage: Virus Outbreak
The U.S. death toll has reached 116,526, according to Johns Hopkins University. That surpasses the number of Americans who died in World War I, when 116,516 were killed — although both death tolls are far from precise. The United States has more confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 than any country in the world.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover but the more difficult cases last for weeks and sometimes take a bad turn even after symptoms seem to ease.
Countries that appeared to have largely contained the virus are seeing new outbreaks.
In China, authorities on Tuesday locked down a third neighborhood in Beijing to contain an outbreak that has infected more than 100 people. Most of the cases have been linked to the capital’s Xinfadi wholesale food market, and people lined up for massive testing of anyone who had visited it in the past two weeks or come in contact with them. About 9,000 workers at the market were tested already.
New Zealand, which hadn’t seen a new case in three weeks, was investigating a case in which two women who flew in from London to see a dying parent were allowed to leave quarantine and drive halfway across the country before they were tested and found to be positive.
The re-emergence of the virus in the country once praised for how it handled infections raised the specter that international air travel could trigger a fresh wave of contagion just as countries are reopening airports to stimulate tourism.
Canada and the U..S agreed to extend to July 21 an agreement to keep their border closed to nonessential travel. The restrictions were announced in March and have been extended repeatedly, with many Canadians fearing cases arriving from the U.S.
“This is a decision that will protect people on both sides of the border as we continue to fight COVID-19,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
The U.S. car industry was among the first to reopen following a lockdown in mid-March. Yet almost immediately after reopening factories and restarting production on a limited basis, the virus began to spread again — even with significant safety precautions in place. Similar spikes have been seen after the reopening of hair salons, day-care centers and bars and restaurants.
Hula Hut, a large Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin, Texas, that was closed for weeks this spring, reopened earlier this month but had to shut down again for six days after two employees tested positive for COVID-19 in quick succession.
“It’s difficult navigating the guidelines — the city, the state, the CDC all have them — but I think we did the right thing,” said Elias Chocalas, the restaurant’s general manager.
Texas doesn’t require restaurants to close after a positive test, but Chocalas said the temporary shutdown allowed Hula Hut to be sanitized multiple times and gave his employees time to get tested and learn their results.
“We follow all the steps and then to see that someone has gotten it is just disheartening,” Chocalas said. “It just brought the realization that this is going to happen regardless of how safe we are.”
Florida’s confirmed cases rose sharply again Tuesday, weeks after the state began reopening its economy, setting a daily record with almost 2,800 new cases reported.
The number of infected patients in Tennessee hospitals has reached its highest level at more than 400, Vanderbilt University researchers reported. The surge in new cases and hospitalizations have led Memphis and Nashville to delay plans to reopen more businesses and increase capacities for restaurants and retail stores.
Nevada reported 379 new cases statewide, its single largest daily increase since May 22. State health officials said the increase can be partially attributed to delayed reporting from the weekend but is also part of an upward trend of new cases in the last three weeks. Nevada’s casinos reopened almost two weeks ago after being closed for 11 weeks.
Elsewhere around the world:
— New, record-high infections were registered in South Africa over the weekend, two weeks after the loosening of restrictions that opened businesses and houses of worship. The country now has more than a quarter of the cases on the 54-nation African continent with more than 73,000.
— Egypt’s health ministry reported 97 deaths Monday, the country’s highest for a single day. Egypt, which has resisted a full lockdown, has over 46,000 COVID-19 infections and 1,672 deaths.
— Israel’s steady raise in infections since restrictions were eased last month has increased fears of what a top Health Ministry official said looked like the “beginning of a wave,” with 200 new cases daily. That’s a tenfold increase from a few weeks ago, and authorities warned of possibly reinstating strict lockdown measures.
— Turkey, which has seen an uptick in cases since it eased restrictions in early June, made the wearing of face masks mandatory in five more provinces Tuesday.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus, Rico reported from Atlanta and Pane reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed.