Cannabis and COVID-19, an update

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"Several new studies have been published on the effects of CBD as a therapeutic for COVID-19. Let's see what developments have been made."

In June of 2020 we brought you an article describing new research into using cannabis, specifically CBD, to treat COVID-19. At that time, there was only one published study on the issue, out of the University of Toronto. That study had gained a lot of attention, and used a prosthetic called an EpiAirway to simulate the human airway. The synthetic prosthetic was then inoculated with human cells to test the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to infect those cells before and after they were exposed to extracts of high CBD containing cannabis flowers. As a pre-print, that article had not yet been peer-reviewed, and our thoughts were that it was unlikely representative of real, in vivo effects in humans. And furthermore, that  publishing such research without peer-review was irresponsible as it could lure some into a false sense of security, making them more likely to contract and spread the virus.

Since June, several new studies have been published on the effects of CBD as a therapeutic for COVID-19, rather than as a prophylaxis. Although the science is still far from conclusive, with nearly 1.2 million global deaths already and the northern hemisphere going into winter with no vaccine or proven medications, maybe it is time to revisit this research and see what developments have been made.

Cannabis use during COVID

Several studies have pointed out that cannabis use has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. For instance, a study conducted in September interviewed medical cannabis patients, and found that cannabis use was up in most cohorts, particularly in those suffering from mental health issues, with an increase in cannabis consumptions by 91%. Of the 1,202 medical cannabis patients interviewed, 16% had changed consumption to non-smoking forms, and only 1 person among them had actually contracted COVID-19. A more recent study in the US put overall (recreational and medicinal) cannabis use up by 20%, and attributed that rise to self-isolation. Studies in Europe found that among recreational users, alcohol and tobacco consumption increased, but cannabis consumption did not.

CBD as a Treatment for COVID-19

Following the publication by Wang et al. in June of 2020, several other studies were published in quick succession  to evaluate the claims by Wang et al., and on other route in which cannabis could assist with COVID-19 treatment. The first was a study out of Spain, and published in the Journal of Cannabis Research in July of 2020. That study did not do any trials, but reviewed the existing literature on the ACE pathways on cell membranes, which the SARS family of viruses uses to infect cells, and the body’s endocannabinoid system. The paper seemed to give some credence to the EpiAirway work. They also outlined how two comorbidities, diabetes and hypertension, were the most strongly corelated with poor outcomes following a COVID-19 infection. That study concluded that investigations into the therapeutic use of cannabis during the COVID pandemic was warranted.

The next study was published a month later, in September, by Dr. Hesam Khodadadi and his team at the Augusta University in Georgia. This time, rather than focusing on the ACE pathways involved in the infection by the virus, this study looked at the leading cause of mortality of patents; the ‘cytokine storm’ within the body that leads to runaway inflammation.  This cytokine storm is known to cause an increase in inflammation of the lungs, leading to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Because CBD has shown so much evidence for its strong anti-inflammatory properties, it was an obvious candidate in the fight against COVID-19 while antivirals or a vaccine are still unavailable.

For the study, they used mice and an analogue virus (similar to SARS-CoV-2), first exposing the mice to the virus then administering the CBD. In the mice who did not receive the CBD, they noted similar symptoms as with human COVID-19 infections, including a rise in proinflammatory cytokines and reduced blood oxygen saturation levels, as well as lung structure problems including pulmonary edema and fibrosis. When administered CBD, the symptoms were totally or partially reversed, and the mice returned to normal conditions. So, CBD modulated the anti-inflammatory response, and restored homeostasis of the immune system. The authors recognized the importance of this study, but were also direct in saying that much more research is needed.

Then, in October, Dr. Khodadadi’s colleague at the Augusta University, Dr. Évila Lopes Salles co-authored another study along the same lines. This study looked to provide more details and in-depth analysis, and also propose a mechanism. While studying the mice, the researchers found that there was an increase in a peptide called apelin, which plays a role in regulating immunity, central nervous system, metabolism, and the heart. Again, this study helps to support the idea that cannabidiol can play a role in the treatment of SARS-COV-2 viral infections, decreasing the cytokine storm, improving lung structure, and decreasing mortality.

Should I take CBD if I think I have COVID-19?

It is still too early to say with any confidence what the best route of action is, and you should always take the advice of your doctor. However, it would appear that CBD is a safe supplement to take anytime, but especially during this pandemic. There may still be other factors that have not been evaluated, and the story of far from complete, but with three preliminary animal studies showing great promise, there is room for optimism. Maybe, those at risk should add CBD to their list of daily supplements.

Other supplements which have been advised are anything that can increase immunity (Vitamins C, E, and D as well as Zinc and Echinacea) as well as anything with anti-inflammatory effects (turmeric, ginger, etc.) Other interesting findings are coming out of Chinese Traditional Medicine, and include herbs such as Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Shui, Lian Hua Qing Wen Capsule, Shu Feng Jie Du Capsule and Jin Hua Qing Gan Granule. Also, ensuring that you are in good physical health, have low stress, and a healthy diet with plenty of activity and sunshine.

Because there is still no cure for COVID-19, these therapeutics may help to save lives, but of course it is best if the virus is not spreading at all, so be sure to follow social distancing practices, wear a mask, wash your hands, and avoid large gatherings.  

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Chad Scott is a freelance science writer who specializes in the field of cannabis. He spent over a decade living in Thailand. He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia while living in Thailand in 2016. Upon diagnosis, Chad immediately began chemotherapy at a rural hospital in the country. He continued to use cannabis oil throughout his chemotherapy treatments for almost 1 year, and never again experienced any nausea or vomiting, and was able to sleep and eat normally. From his personal experiences, he has become an advocate for medical cannabis and believes that all cancer patients should have the right to access this natural medicine if they so choose.

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