Background: Multiple early reports of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 showed that patients with chronic respiratory disease were significantly under-represented in these cohorts. We hypothesised that the widespread use of inhaled glucocorticoids among these patients was responsible for this finding, and tested if inhaled glucocorticoids would be an effective treatment for early COVID-19.
Methods: We performed an open-label, parallel-group, phase 2, randomised controlled trial (Steroids in COVID-19; STOIC) of inhaled budesonide, compared with usual care, in adults within 7 days of the onset of mild COVID-19 symptoms. The trial was done in the community in Oxfordshire, UK. Participants were randomly assigned to inhaled budsonide or usual care stratified for age (≤40 years or >40 years), sex (male or female), and number of comorbidities (≤1 and ≥2). Randomisation was done using random sequence generation in block randomisation in a 1:1 ratio. Budesonide dry powder was delivered using a turbohaler at a dose of 400 μg per actuation. Participants were asked to take two inhalations twice a day until symptom resolution. The primary endpoint was COVID-19-related urgent care visit, including emergency department assessment or hospitalisation, analysed for both the per-protocol and intention-to-treat (ITT) populations. The secondary outcomes were self-reported clinical recovery (symptom resolution), viral symptoms measured using the Common Cold Questionnare (CCQ) and the InFLUenza Patient Reported Outcome Questionnaire (FLUPro), body temperature, blood oxygen saturations, and SARS-CoV-2 viral load. The trial was stopped early after independent statistical review concluded that study outcome would not change with further participant enrolment. This trial is registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT04416399.
Findings: From July 16 to Dec 9, 2020, 167 participants were recruited and assessed for eligibility. 21 did not meet eligibility criteria and were excluded. 146 participants were randomly assigned-73 to usual care and 73 to budesonide. For the per-protocol population (n=139), the primary outcome occurred in ten (14%) of 70 participants in the usual care group and one (1%) of 69 participants in the budesonide group (difference in proportions 0·131, 95% CI 0·043 to 0·218; p=0·004). For the ITT population, the primary outcome occurred in 11 (15%) participants in the usual care group and two (3%) participants in the budesonide group (difference in proportions 0·123, 95% CI 0·033 to 0·213; p=0·009). The number needed to treat with inhaled budesonide to reduce COVID-19 deterioration was eight. Clinical recovery was 1 day shorter in the budesonide group compared with the usual care group (median 7 days [95% CI 6 to 9] in the budesonide group vs 8 days [7 to 11] in the usual care group; log-rank test p=0·007). The mean proportion of days with a fever in the first 14 days was lower in the budesonide group (2%, SD 6) than the usual care group (8%, SD 18; Wilcoxon test p=0·051) and the proportion of participants with at least 1 day of fever was lower in the budesonide group when compared with the usual care group. As-needed antipyretic medication was required for fewer proportion of days in the budesonide group compared with the usual care group (27% [IQR 0-50] vs 50% [15-71]; p=0·025) Fewer participants randomly assigned to budesonide had persistent symptoms at days 14 and 28 compared with participants receiving usual care (difference in proportions 0·204, 95% CI 0·075 to 0·334; p=0·003). The mean total score change in the CCQ and FLUPro over 14 days was significantly better in the budesonide group compared with the usual care group (CCQ mean difference -0·12, 95% CI -0·21 to -0·02 [p=0·016]; FLUPro mean difference -0·10, 95% CI -0·21 to -0·00 [p=0·044]). Blood oxygen saturations and SARS-CoV-2 load, measured by cycle threshold, were not different between the groups. Budesonide was safe, with only five (7%) participants reporting self-limiting adverse events.
Interpretation: Early administration of inhaled budesonide reduced the likelihood of needing urgent medical care and reduced time to recovery after early COVID-19.