Cannabinoids Offer a Fighting Chance Against COVID-19
Living in a global pandemic comes with its challenges. It is in these trying times, when we see a light at the end of the tunnel, that we can begin to believe in a brighter tomorrow. Today, that light shines on hemp and its therapeutic potential.
After a handful of promising studies, it is possible that cannabinoids, the active compounds found in hemp, can help fight the coronavirus. These compounds have been shown to offer therapeutic benefits to presently ill COVID patients, which may be useful for both avoiding life threatening symptoms and supporting a speedy recovery.
Aside from the positive implications towards COVID treatments and public health, this new discovery is putting more pressure on regulators to create better access for researchers that intend to study hemp derived compounds for medical uses. Presently, there are still many barriers for scientists to work around when studying hemp and its psychoactive cousin, leaving much to understand about the impact of hemp compounds for COVID treatment. Despite these regulatory humps, there is a great deal of compelling evidence towards cannabinoids fighting coronavirus.
COVID & the immune system
The crown-covered virus, COVID-19 is infamous for its unique structure with spike proteins coating its surface. These spike proteins are disguised from our immune system by a coating of sugar molecules, or glycans, making it more challenging to identify and fight compared to other viruses. These spike proteins are how the virus infects our healthy cells. The virus uses these spikes to attach to receptors on the outer part of our cells (the ACE2 receptor to be exact). This allows the virus inside a cell where it can continue replicating.
When actively infected with the coronavirus, it typically takes about 2-14 days to exhibit symptoms, which on average requires a two week recovery time. The most common symptoms are fever, cold symptoms, and upper respiratory complications with a wide range in severity that has required many to seek urgent medical care. This can create challenges for people’s health, and their ability to uphold responsibilities in their personal and professional lives. A fast acting solution is imperative to minimize the damage and save lives.
There has been some luck with vaccinations at slowing the spread of COVID-19, but with immunocompromised individuals at risk, and such a large population opting out of vaccination we are seeing COVID-19 overstay its welcome, with no end in sight.
Cannabinoids stop COVID from entering cells
When considering how cannabinoids impact the virus’ ability to infect and replicate, the magic lies in the molecular structures, or how the shapes of the molecules fit together. Microbiology works like a complex jigsaw puzzle, each molecule binding into a spot that fits its size and orientation. Some cannabinoids have been found to fit perfectly onto the spike proteins of the virus, causing all sorts of complications for the virus to overcome.
The spike proteins function as a key, unlocking the doors of our cells to continue infecting a host’s body. In the same way that these spikes utilize their unique shape to essentially ‘lock-pick’ their way into cells, three novel cannabinoids have been found to bind to these spikes and weaken the SARS-CoV-2 virus ability to enter host cells. The cannabinoids cannabigerolic acid (CBG-A), cannabidiolic acid (CBD-A), and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THC-A) act like chewing gum on the spike protein’s key, while also assisting the immune system functions to combat the virus.
Cannabinoids boost immunity
Beyond their ability to block protein spike connections of the COVID virus, cannabinoids have also been shown to change how COVID interacts once inside a host cell. Cannabidiol (CBD) and a metabolized byproduct of CBD, 7-Hydroxycannabidiol (7-OH-CBD) prevent SARS-CoV-2 by manipulating the way the virus replicates once inside a cell. These two cannabinoids inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to replicate while also offering other benefits that support immune response.
There are additional health benefits cannabinoids can provide to strengthen immune response. When ingesting cannabinoids, these compounds primarily interact with the central nervous system, more specifically the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is part of the nervous system's communication network in the body, and CBD can indirectly influence this channel of receptors located in the brain, spinal cord, organs, and immune system. The cannabinoid molecule acts as a puzzle piece fitting directly into the nervous system receptors and influencing changes in the body. CBD has been shown in other studies to minimize inflammation and promote regulated function of our organs and immune system responses. Thus, cannabinoids may have additional benefits for supporting immunity to viral infections and healing affected tissue in the body.
Though there are nuances to each interaction between cannabinoids and COVID, in the end it is really all about the shapes of the molecules, the virus, and the nervous system receptors. In studying these puzzle pieces, scientists were able to unravel the truth about using cannabinoids to fight COVID.
How do cannabinoids affect the COVID-19 virus?
Novel cannabinoids block COVID from entering cells
In a study published in January 2022, researchers found compelling evidence that cannabinoids can block cellular entry of coronavirus and emerging variants of the virus. The team was led by Richard van Breemen, a researcher with Oregon State’s Global Hemp Innovation Center.
Due to regulatory limitations when working with compounds that could be converted to THC, the team was only able to conduct research on the compounds CBD-A, CBG-A, and THC-A in isolation. It was found that both CBD-A and CBG-A were effective at blocking SARS-CoV-2 from entering human cells. This was even more effective when combined with THC-A.
The hemp extracts studied had a combination of botanical compounds the virus spikes could bond to, called ligands. Cannabinoids were some of the ligands extracted for the study. They were then observed for their ability to bind to the virus. “We identified several cannabinoid ligands and ranked them by affinity to the spike protein,” van Breemen explained. “The two cannabinoids with the highest affinities for the spike protein were CBDA and CBGA, and they were confirmed to block infection.”
This exciting news has been somewhat misleading in the media, as many have incorrectly stated that CBD is the hemp molecule responsible for blocking infection of COVID-19. CBDA is found in raw fibers and extract of hemp plants, unlike CBD which requires extraction and processing from the plant material to be produced.
Currently, CBD is produced in abundance compared to CBDA and CBGA, but this is still good news, as there is now potential for CBD to offer aid in fighting COVID.
CBD is a promising antiviral therapy
A study conducted at the University of Chicago examined the effects of CBD and THC on the coronavirus. What they found was, CBD appears to enter the viral cells, hijacking the mechanisms of the virus' ability to replicate itself. CBD doesn’t work on the protein spikes of the virus, but rather, it works inside of the cell. Based on these findings, it's likely that this mechanism wouldn’t be affected by genetic mutations to the spike protein, which can happen as new variants arise. This makes CBD a strong contender for future therapeutic use.
After testing both THC and CBD together and separately, it was found that only CBD in isolation was able to effectively stall the replication of SARS-CoV-2. While THC was not effective and may actually hinder the antiviral effects of CBD.
Can smoking prevent COVID?
Ultimately, no, smoking cannabinoid products will not prevent or treat COVID. This is due to two factors: active ingredients and how it's consumed.
Most dispensaries are only going to carry products high in THC or CBD, with trace amounts of the active ingredients that were found to be effective antiviral aids. Even products that have CBD and THCA present, may not have a high enough percentage of CBDA and CBGA to offer the full therapeutic effects.
Going even deeper, when you burn the plant material or vaporize it, the heat causes a chemical process that converts THCA to THC, which was found to not have therapeutic effects against the virus. The only viable way to consume THCA without this conversion happening is by eating it raw, which is not an ideal way to consume flowers.
When trying to find products similar to the studied cannabinoids, a full spectrum hemp derived CBD extract is the closest product available to consumers today. Though, these products may have varying potency of CBDA and CBGA. Once more treatment options are released to the public, it is likely more potent isolates will be available to enhance products for antiviral use.
Can CBD treat or prevent COVID-19?
There is still work to be done to identify dosing parameters and viability for preventative care, however some countries have already begun offering CBD treatments to individuals infected with the virus.
At the Klagenfurt clinic in Austria, doctors are currently offering CBD to treat COVID-19 patients. Patients are administered 200-300mg of CBD daily for three weeks after testing positive for the virus. In their initial trial, patients consuming CBD recovered significantly faster than those in the placebo group (those who did not use CBD). The doctors’ goals with CBD are to utilize CBD’s immune-supportive properties. CBD can help regulate inflammation in the body and prevent possible exacerbated immune responses, which can lead to other complications and deaths in COVID patients. Dr. Likar of the Klagenfurt clinic also mentioned that CBD restores oxygen levels in the body. This may be an excellent therapeutic option for COVID-19 patients who are already experiencing pneumonia, and may even help them recover faster.
Although there is much promise for cannabinoid therapeutics with COVID, there has been some conflicting evidence that calls for further exploration. A study published in October 2021 out of Brazil was testing the same work done at the Klagenfurt clinic. The results came back null, with no noticeable differences between COVID-19 patients that used CBD therapy and the placebo treatment groups. It leaves open the questions, what are the differences in the two clinics that led to varied results; and would a higher dose of CBD provide more substantial differences?
Despite this contrasting evidence, the studies conducted by van Breemen have paved the way to success with cannabinoids combatting COVID. We may not have definitive answers for clinical uses on treatment and prevention, but we can confirm on a cellular level that cannabinoids halt the spread of COVID in more than one way. In an interview with Oregon state university, van Breemen states,
“Any part of the infection and replication cycle is a potential target for antiviral intervention, and the connection of the spike protein’s receptor binding domain to the human cell surface receptor ACE2 is a critical step in that cycle. 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 cells in the lungs and other organs.”
Cannabinoid treatments offer a safe and targeted approach (alongside medical care) that can significantly decrease symptoms and length of illness due to COVID.
What about COVID variants?
Based on the fact that genetic mutation would not hinder the antiviral effects of cannabinoids, this treatment method would hold strong against future variants of the virus. Van Breemen shared that their research showed that the hemp compounds were equally effective against variants of SARS-CoV-2, including variant B.1.1.7 (first detected in the UK), and B.1.351 (first detected in South Africa). This offers a great deal of hope as future studies around cannabinoids and COVID-19 strengthen our understanding of the therapeutic effects, as it will likely remain relevant regardless of what new virus variants look like.
Looking to the Future
A primary concern when looking to the future of pandemic safety is the spread of variants, especially when some of the most widespread variants are well known for evading antibodies against early lineage SARS-CoV-2. This is problematic as our first line of defense, vaccines, rely on early lineage spike protein as an antigen. Van Beermen optimistically states, “Our data show[s] CBDA and CBGA are effective against the two variants we looked at, and we hope that trend will extend to other existing and future variants.”
It is possible that cannabinoid resistant variants could still arise amid widespread use of cannabinoids, however the combination of vaccination, CBD, and CBDA/CBGA treatment should give us the best odds when fighting COVID.
Due to the popularity of these studies on hemp compounds and COVID, it is also likely that this research is building momentum for long overdue clinical research on cannabinoids. Globally, we are seeing an increase in medical studies on cannabinoids and hemp extracts, with potential to highlight the other antibacterial, antiviral, and antiinflammatory effects of CBD and other novel compounds. For now, we can celebrate this discovery as one more piece of a larger puzzle that’s making the world a safer and healthy place.