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New COVID-19 Drug Has Long Been Used in High Altitude Climbing

A drug commonly used by high-altitude mountaineers and guides has shown promise as a treatment for Covid-19. Wikipedia photo.

In recent weeks, news of a promising new treatment for COVID-19 has been making the rounds in medical circles and even made it to the front page of the New York Times. No, it's not a malaria drug. It’s a corticosteroid called dexamethasone, and it has long been used both as emergency medicine and as a sort of performance enhancing drug by high altitude climbers. Dex, as the drug is often referred to colloquially, was said in a press release preceding official results of a clinical trial to have the ability to reduce COVID-19 deaths by a third for patients on ventilators and up to 20 percent on patients without intubation. In other words, dex could be a lifesaving treatment for patients in serious trouble from COVID-19. This was a promising result in the fight against the disease that has killed nearly half a million people around the world in the last few months.

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For mountaineers and guides, using dex isn’t news. The inexpensive anti-inflammatory drug has been used by climbers preventatively before going to high altitude as it reduces brain swelling and can thus increase performance at altitude. Climbing Rangers in Denali use the drug to acclimatize quickly, and guides will often use the drug as an emergency medication to treat cerebral edema. The drug’s use is considered somewhat controversial in climbing circles, as it could be considered an unfair advantage.

Of course, the true effectiveness of the drug remains to be seen, as the official results of the 6000-person clinical trial have yet to be published and peer-reviewed.

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