15 Sep Could cannabis be part of an effective treatment for COVID-19?
Six months into the pandemic and more than 27 million people have been infected with COVID-19 worldwide. Almost 900,000 have died and active cases right now average at seven million.
Scientists, governments and biotechs are scrambling to find a vaccine or treatment for a disease that is changing our world. And there are some research groups looking into the potential of using cannabis in a treatment for COVID-19.
Could cannabis be a treatment for COVID-19?
Before we look at whether cannabis could be a cure for COVID-19, I want to quickly sum up where the race for a cure stands. Early potential treatments for new diseases usually focus on drugs that have been approved for other illnesses, which is why antivirals are at the top of the research pile.
From 8 May 2020, two medications were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. The first is an existing antiviral called Remdesivir and the other a sedative for ventilated patients. However, these drugs are still in the clinical trials system to find out whether they will work. It could be months before treatments are fully in use against COVID-19 and even longer until a vaccine.
In the UK, the British Journal of Pharmacology has called for a much wider screening of existing drugs to see whether any will work against COVID-19. They have identified three stages of infection by this virus that could be targeted with separate treatments:
- When the virus enters the cells.
- When it replicates within the cells.
- The damage it does to internal organs.
Antivirals currently being tested include an anti-influenza viral drug called arbidol, EIDD-2801, Favipiravir, Kaltera and Merimepodib (VX-497).
Potential treatments derived from existing drugs
Other possible treatments are being researched too. These include ibuprofen for its anti-inflammatory properties that could ease breathing difficulties. Another is a drug called apilomod, which is a proven treatment for various autoimmune diseases. Early research by Yale University shows that it can block the entry of the virus into the cells. Synthetic antibodies have been created by scientists at the University of California San Francisco, plasma treatments are being developed by various teams of researchers and a drug that treats coronaviruses in cats has some promise.
A vaccine is also being developed, and there is immense pressure on scientists to come up with something as fast as possible. Experts say there is still at least 12 months to go before an effective, safe and tested vaccine is on the market. In the meantime, the search for treatments goes on including some tests on medical cannabis as a possible treatment for COVID-19.
So what about cannabinoids and a possible cannabis treatment for COVID-19?
Some scientists are asking whether cannabinoids could reduce the lung inflammation caused by COVID-19 if they’re added to anti-viral treatments. The rationale is that the non-psychotropic cannabidiol (CBD) has proven beneficial as an anti-inflammatory against various chronic diseases. For example, the FDA have approved CBD to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.
Simply put, most of the deaths linked with COVID-19 are thought to be down to the body’s immune system catastrophically overreacting. The resultant inflammation breaks down organ tissue, particularly in the lungs and causes respiratory failure. The most studied cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is shown to decrease lung inflammation by suppressing immune responses and inhibiting the production of proinflammatory cytokine. CBD works in a similar way to THC to treat the symptoms produced by COVID-19.
Cannabinoids are proven to regulate some of the exact inflammatory proteins that cause the most damage in COVID-19 cases. However, this is countered by the fact that cannabinoids can also reduce the response of the immune system too much. This is particularly the case for patients who are or have been smokers of any kind. Before cannabinoids can be properly accepted and used (or rejected) as a COVID-19 treatment, their effectiveness will be thoroughly tested through clinical trials.
Wider human testing needed for cannabinoids
There are four studies planned for the near future to test cannabinoids on human COVID-19 patients. However, there are no results yet available for these and we don’t know whether the size and scope of these trials would be enough to convince either the FDA or the European Medicines Agency to approve the treatments.
Until there are trials across many more diverse groups of patients, it’s not possible to say whether cannabinoids could become an effective COVID-19 treatment. However, the hypothesis is sound and early results are promising.
A recent partnership between Swysh Inc, Pathway RX (both cannabis research companies) and the University of Lethbridge in Alberta Canada discovered that some cannabis sativa extracts can help to prevent infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. Their research shows that the extracts affect the expression of human cell proteins called TMPRSS2 and ACE2. These are known to be the key entry point for the virus into the cells. T
This research has not yet been peer-reviewed and needs large-scale validation. The researchers say that while they recognise the need for more testing they think that their CBD C.sativa lines could become an adjunct therapy in the treatment of COVID-19. The extracts would be in the form of a throat gargle or mouthwash designed to prevent COVID-19 infecting the body.
Research into cannabinoids underway around the world
Another Canadian research effort is underway by Tetra Bio-Pharma, a biopharm company that focuses on cannabinoid-derived drug development. The company is trying to secure funding to examine the active molecule in their own synthetic cannabinoid drug, which is called PPP003. They believe it could reduce the overactivity and inflammation of the immune system caused by COVID-19 and lead to fewer deaths from sepsis.
Over in Israel InnoCan Pharma Ltd announced back in April that it has teamed up with Tel Aviv University to develop potential cell therapy treatment using “CBD-loaded exosomes” for COVID-19 patients. Likely to be an inhaled treatment, the product will also undergo tests against other lung diseases. Exosomes are tiny particles that are made when stem cells are multiplied. They can effectively target specific damaged organs and when combined with the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD, the researchers say that they have high hopes for a positive effect.
So far, there hasn’t been a big or diverse enough study to confirm whether cannabinoids or cannabis can be a treatment for COVID-19. Just like any other drug they must be proven fully effective and safe. A search of various global databases, including the World Health Organization, the FDA and the ClinicalTrials.gov, shows 16 groups that are actively using cannabinoids or cannabis to develop a COVID-19 therapy.