With COVID-19 continuing to spread all over the world, researchers are looking into numerous options for possible treatment, including existing drugs. Medical cannabis is one option that’s gained a lot of attention, but while early research shows some promise, it’s much too early to be considered a safe and effective treatment.
Current research on cannabis as a COVID-19 treatment
Likely due to the continued restrictions on cannabis research in the US, there are not yet any studies in the country focusing on cannabis as a possible treatment or prevention for COVID-19. However, earlier this month, University of Miami researchers launched a study into how the novel coronavirus is impacting American cannabis users during the peak of the outbreak.
“The global qualifying conditions for medical cannabis, though not uniform, all include individuals with compromised immune systems and other chronic health conditions. Therefore, this is a population that we cannot forget about in our joint effort to ‘flatten the curve,'" Denise C. Vidot, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies and a trained epidemiologist, said in a press release.
More recently, a partnership between cannabis research companies Pathway RX and Swysh Inc. and the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, found that certain Cannabis sativa extracts could be used in treatments to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Specifically, they found that the extracts have an effect on the expression of ACE2 and TMPRSS2, proteins in human cells that research has shown to be an entry point for the virus. However, their research has only just been submitted for publication and has not yet been peer reviewed.
“While our most effective extracts require further large-scale validation, our study is crucial for the future analysis of the effects of medical cannabis on COVID-19,” the researchers said in an early pre-publication version of their study. “The extracts of our most successful and novel high CBD [cannabidiol] C. sativa lines, pending further investigation, may become a useful and safe addition to the treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy.”
They add that their extracts could potentially be used in a mouthwash or “throat gargle” to prevent COVID-19 coronavirus infection.
Another Canadian effort is being led by Tetra Bio-Pharma, a Canadian-based biopharmaceutical company involved in cannabinoid-derived drug discovery and development. According to an emailed statement, the company is hoping to secure funding to advance their COVID-19 program in Canada and the US. Specifically, they'll be examining the active molecule in their synthetic cannabinoid drug PPP003, with the hopes that it can reduce the inflammation and immune system overactivity that can lead to sepsis, thus leading to better clinical outcomes.
"Cannabinoids that act at CB2R [the type 2 cannabinoid receptor] have shown promise for reducing the acute inflammatory response in experimental sepsis and some of these could be useful in patients with SARS-CoV-2," the company said in their statement. "Well designed clinical trials of PPP003 are needed to prove whether this drug could help prevent the progression of symptoms of the acute lung injury and heightened immune response seen in some patients following SARS-CoV-2 infection."
Similar research was recently launched in Israel. InnoCan Pharma Ltd, an Israeli pharmaceutical company focused on cannabis therapies, announced Apr. 17 that it is partnering with Tel Aviv University to develop a possible cell therapy treatment that uses “CBD-loaded exosomes” to treat those with COVID-19. The product, which the company says will likely be given to patients through inhalation, will also be tested as a treatment for other lung infections.
“Exosomes are small particles created when stem cells are multiplied,” InnoCan said in a recent statement. “Exosomes can act as ‘homing missiles,’ targeting specific damaged organs and have an important role in cell-to-cell communication. When the cell healing properties of the exosomes are combined with the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD, it is expected to reach high synergetic effect.”
Also in Israel, the Medical Cannabis Network reports that researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology and their partners are working on two studies exploring the use of a cannabis terpene formulation, also administered by inhalation, in the treatment of COVID-19. The first study will focus on the effect of Cannabis molecules on the immune system, while the second study will investigate the ACE2 receptor and how the terpene treatment could prevent viral entry to human cells through this pathway.
Another Israeli cannabis research company, Stero Biotechs, was also to launch a small clinical trial this month studying the effectiveness of a CBD-steroid treatment in 10 COVID-19 patients at Rabin Medical Center, according to an Apr. 19 press release.
Previous research on cannabis as coronavirus treatment
This isn’t the first time cannabis has been investigated as a prevention and treatment strategy for a coronavirus. Earlier research has looked at the drug’s effect on SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which caused an outbreak in 2003. In a 2007 study, researchers from China examined the antiviral properties of cannabis against SARS-CoV.
They looked at 221 phytocompounds, finding that “specific abietane-type diterpenoids and lignoids exhibit strong anti-SARS-CoV effects.”
Risks of cannabis use during the pandemic
However, those thinking of upping their cannabis intake in the hopes of preventing or treating COVID-19 infection should take these early results with a large grain of salt. In particular, smoking more cannabis is likely to put people at greater risk of infection, health authorities stress.
“The research community should be alert to the possibility that [COVID-19] could hit some populations with substance use disorders particularly hard,” the US National Institute on Drug Abuse says in a statement. “Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape.”
As for those wondering if edibles or oils are a safer solution, there just isn’t enough research to prove these products are truly effective against COVID-19 either.
With current research on cannabis as a COVID-19 prevention and treatment strategy still in the very early stages, it will likely be some time before we have a clear answer as to whether these products are safe and effective options. The studies in Israel have only just been launched with no solid timeline on when the results will be out, and the Canadian researchers are still looking for partners to run clinical trials with their cannabis extracts.
While it will likely be frustrating for those who want a clear answer now, it will be many months before we know for sure whether cannabis is a safe and effective option against COVID-19.
Editor’s note: So far, there is no approved treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. This article is meant to be a summary of some of the research so far into cannabis as a possible COVID-19 treatment, not an endorsement of its use as such. With the COVID-19 situation rapidly changing, always consult your local health authority and health care provider for the most up-to-date information on treatment options and cannabis use during the pandemic.