Is cannabis the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic?

by Angelica Leicht

To say the last couple of years have been tragic would be an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging our nation — and countries across the globe — for nearly two years now. And, with the massive uptick in omicron cases over the last few months, it appears there is no clear end in sight.

Things didn’t always feel this heavy, though. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us thought we’d have the spread under control within a few weeks. After all, if we just stayed home, remained socially distant, and only ventured out when absolutely necessary, we’d be out of this mess in no time flat. How hard could it be, right?

My, how naive — and hopeful — we were.

Getting the viral spread under control proved to be a lot more of a task than originally anticipated — and for numerous reasons. Between the ease in which COVID spread, the ability of the virus to remain asymptomatic in certain people, and the rampant misinformation campaigns, the pandemic was tough to combat, no matter how careful many of us were. There was a point when things seemed less dire, though.
Toward the middle and end of 2021, it appeared that we may be out of the fire when it came to the pandemic. Numbers were dropping, cases were clearing up, and while people were still sick, the widespread availability of the vaccine made things feel hopeful once again.

That all came to an end over the last month or so, though, when omicron, a new strain of COVID that spreads like wildfire throughout communities, took hold. We went from hopeful to frustrated and scared once again, as numbers climbed sky-high with little warning.

As of late January, hospitals were still overwhelmed. People were still dying. Nurses were still quitting in droves, worn down by the events of the last couple of years. And, this time around, it’s not just the adults who are facing severe consequences that can come with catching the virus. Children are now being hospitalized at higher rates with severe COVID-related illnesses.

So, what can be done? How do we dig ourselves out of this terrible hole — one that, as of late January
2022, had caused over 5,617,590 Americans to die?

Well, it turns out that cannabis — or rather cannabis compounds — may be key. How cannabis could play a role in ending the pandemic

While smoking weed isn’t likely to keep you from contracting the novel coronavirus, new research into cannabis shows that the plant could be a promising weapon in the fight against the virus.

In particular, two cannabis compounds — cannabigerolic acid, or CBGA, and cannabidiolic acid, or CBDA — could be the key.

Researchers from Oregon State University recently found during a chemical screening effort that CBDA and CBGA prevented the virus that causes COVID-19 from penetrating healthy human cells, according to study data published in the Journal of Nature Products.

As part of the study, researchers noted that both CBDA and CBGA bound to spike proteins that are found on the virus — which worked to block a step that the pathogen uses to infect people.

In the study, these compounds were able to bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Once bound, the compounds prevented the virus from entering the cells that typically line internal organs and skin — which is the route the pathogen process uses to infect humans with COVID-19.

What that means is that — in theory — if CBGA and CBDA are taken in the right manner, and in the right amount, they could help to lessen the effects of the COVID-19 virus in people who are infected. Given that millions of Americans have already succumbed to the effects of the virus, this could be game-changing — and life-changing, too.

“That means cell entry inhibitors, like the acids from hemp, could be used to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and also to shorten infections by preventing virus particles from infecting human cells. They bind to the spike proteins so those proteins can’t bind to the ACE2 enzyme, which is abundant on the outer membrane of endothelial cells in the lungs and other organs,” Richard van Breemen, a scientist with Oregon State’s
Global Hemp Innovation Center, College of Pharmacy, and Linus Pauling Institute, said in a statement.

And, what’s more is that both cannabis compounds — CBDA and CBDG — were found to be equally effective against the SARS-CoV-2 alpha and beta variants.

That’s not the only promising lead that researchers have found regarding cannabis’ role in fighting the pandemic, either.

A recent research study published in the Science Advances journal, University of Chicago researchers have
found evidence that plain old CBD could help to prevent contracting the virus altogether.

According to the study data, when people — not lab mice — were prescribed regular high-potency doses of pharmaceutical-grade CBD, they were less likely to contract COVID.

“Our research suggest that CBD and its metabolite 7-OH-CBD,” which is a compound produced after the body processes CBD, “can block SARS-Cov-2 infection at early and even later stages of infection,” researchers noted in the study.

As part of the study, University of Chicago researchers treated human lung cells with CBD prior to infecting them with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. What they found was that “CBD potently inhibited viral replication under non-toxic conditions” — and CBD alone.

“Remarkably,” they wrote, “only CBD was a potent agent.”

So how did CBD do this? Well, it appears, according to researchers, that the cannabinoid activates a cellular stress response that is normally triggered in the presence of “viruses or other pathogens.” This stress response produces a series of proteins, called interferons, which act as antivirals to fight the virus.

And, that’s not all researchers found, either. According to the study data, CBD also prevented the virus from making other changes to infected host cells.

These cellular-level findings were then tested on mice, which were given two loads of CBD — either 20 or 80 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

According to the researchers, the mice that were given 80 milligrams of CBD per kilo of weight saw significant decreases of viral loads in the lungs and the nose — in some cases up to “40- and 4.8-fold.”
While those findings are indeed notable, it’s important to note that a high dose of CBD, similar to what was given to the mice, would be extremely expensive if calculated for human dosage. For example, a 150-pound person would have to take 5,440 milligrams of CBD to match what was given to the mice.

But while that price may be cost-prohibitive in many cases, it may also be money well spent — at least if we’re calculating in the findings that the same University of Chicago researchers found when looking at datasets related to Epidiolex, a CBDbased pharmaceutical drug for patients with severe seizure disorders.
As part of the study into CBD and COVID, the researchers reviewed data from 1,212 patients taking Epidiolex in a dataset called the National COVID Cohort Collaborative. What they found was that the COVID infection rate among people with a “medication record” of taking pharmaceutical-grade CBD was 6.2% — significantly lower than the 8.9% infection rate for people not taking CBD.

And the potential of CBD to fight against COVID was even more evident in the people who took CBD the same day as their COVID-19 tests.

When looking at a subset of 531 patients “who were likely taking” 100 milligrams of CBD, the positivity rate was 4.9%, compared to a rate of 9% for the control group that was not taking the drug. That difference of 4.1% is pretty significant — and almost certainly warrants more research into the topic.
What role does THC play in the fight against COVID?

While these new CBD studies are promising, it’s important to note that this new study data does not indicate that we will soon be replacing the vaccines and booster shots with CBD tinctures and big old sacks of weed.
While it would be awesome if that were the case, what this research likely indicates is that cannabis derivatives — and CBD in particular — may be a supplemental tool instead. In other words, if research continues to prove that it’s of use in the battle against COVID, CBDA and CBGA would likely be used in conjunction with traditional methods, like vaccines, to help end the pandemic.

There is also no evidence that the psychoactive cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, plays a role in fighting against COVID. So while smoking an ounce of weed a week may be fun, there is no proof that it will have any real effect on the likelihood of COVID-19 virus transmission — or the subsequent effects of the virus.

That said, it’s important to note that the lack of evidence regarding THC doesn’t actually mean that THC has no role in the fight against the pandemic. It just means that for the most part, researchers are federally prohibited from studying the potential positive effects of THC in a clinical setting.

Federal prohibition of cannabis — and cannabis’ classification as a Schedule I drug — has long played a part in limiting researchers’ abilities to research positive effects of the plant. As a Schedule I drug, cannabis is defined as a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

While it’s clear that is not actually the case, the federal Schedule I classification severely limits any research that can be done into cannabinoids like THC, which are only found in the cannabis sativa plant. Researchers who want to study the legitimate medical uses of cannabis are bound by these limitations — and while these laws recently became laxer, it is, for the most part, still nearly impossible for researchers to study the medical uses of THC.

Research into CBD, on the other hand, is a free-for-all. Not only is CBD federally legal, but it can be derived from hemp, which frees researchers to study the cannabinoid in a wider capacity. The ability to derive CBD from a legal plant makes it a lot easier to conduct research studies like the ones above.

And, that’s precisely what happened in at least one of these cases. Researchers from Oregon State were unable to study THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, due to campus rules prohibiting research using controlled substances. As such, their research was limited to compounds related to CBD.

So, whether THC could play a role in the fight remains a question that isn’t easily answered.

It’s also important to note that the mechanism in which these cannabis compounds are ingested may also play a role.

According to Van Breeman, who spoke to VICE News about the study, smoking a joint or a bowl of weed, even if it’s filled with CBD, may not play the same role as ingesting an oral supplement with CBD (or any other cannabinoid). That’s because, when heated, the chemi- cal profile and properties of the compound change. It’s the same concept as to why you can’t get high off of just eating a bag of weed. Your stomach may digest the plant matter, but without combustion, you won’t get high off the THC in the plant. It will remain inactive.

Conversely, lighting the plant matter that contains CBD could negate some of the properties needed to combat the transmission of the virus from one person to another. That’s all theory, of course. A lot more
research will need to be done to prove what’s true one way or the other.

What researchers have to say about the findings

In recent interviews, researchers have highlighted both the potential significance of their work — and the potential limitations, too.

“As a bottom line, what this says is that CBD has the potential to prevent infections, such as breakthrough infections, which might be one of the most useful applications,” Marsha Rosner, a professor of cancer
research at the University of Chicago and a lead study author, told VICE.

Rosner also noted that it’s important to remember these findings are limited to just CBD — and not just any CBD, either. These findings pertain to certain types of high-grade CBD products that can deliver a very large dose of the compound.

“Going to your corner bakery and buying some CBD muffins or gummy bears probably won’t do anything,”
Rosner said.

It’s also important to note that — again — there is nothing in these studies to indicate that CBD can be used as a complete replacement for things like masks and vaccinations. In fact, Rosner noted concern that the research study would lead people to believe that masking and vaccines could be replaced with high-dose
CBD, which is not the case.

“What we don’t want is people just running out and thinking, ‘I can take CBD, and then I don’t have to get vaccinated or I don’t have to be masked,” Rosner said. “This is what we really don’t want to see.”

So what are the next steps? Well, researchers are hopeful that the clinical trials with human participants can start ASAP. After all, with COVID infection and hospitalization numbers at new highs, time is of the essence.
“We are very eager to see some clinical trials on this subject get off the ground,” Rosner told the University of Chicago’s news service.

“Especially as we are seeing that the pandemic is still nowhere near the end,” she added, “determining whether this generally safe, well-tolerated, and non-psychoactive cannabinoid might have anti-viral effects against COVID-19 is of critical importance.”

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