Could Cannabis Treat COVID?

Researchers at Oregon State University make an Interesting Discovery.


Lifestyle cannabis consumers have long hoped that their favorite pastime could help prevent them from contracting COVID — after all, the cannabis industry is an essential business, and it has helped many people through a truly difficult period. There hopes may not have been far off the mark. A recent paper, suggests some compounds exclusive to the plant might be useful to treat the disease in the future. Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) found that two cannabinoids, cannabergolic acid (CBGA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) prevented the COVID virus from infecting human epithelial cells — cells abundant within the lungs and other viscera of humans that when infected create more copies of the virus.

Keep in mind that neither CBGA nor CBDA, otherwise known as the precursor to CBD, are psychoactive, and as many a follow-up piece on the paper’s findings have mentioned, smoking and vaporizing the plant will only end up decarboxylating, or removing the “A,” from both compounds and therefore neutralizing it. However, this discovery does kick off what could be medical cannabis’s most significant contribution yet to human health. For if cannabis can give even newly released antivirals, like the well-publicized Pfizer and Merck pills, a run for their money, it would only add to the number of conditions that many believe the plant helps to treat.

According to the paper’s authors, the main inspiration behind using cannabinoids to treat COVID lies in the ongoing exploration of natural products, which are “the most successful source of drugs and drug leads in the history of pharmacology,” to tackle humankind’s diseases. According to the paper, less than 10% of what we can find in nature has been explored for its utility. In exploring whether hemp’s cannabinoids, which also included CBD, Delta-9 and delta-8 THC as well as CBDA and CBGA, could prevent the COVID virus from gaining entry into epithelial cells, the researchers found that under particularly high concentrations, CBDA and CBGA could block half of infections from forming. One cannabinoid, THCA, also showed high binding affinity to the COVID spike protein, but the researchers couldn’t explore it in an effective enough concentration, because THCA, when heated, turns into a controlled substance.

Perhaps most interesting for fans of whole-plant medicine, the paper’s lead author, Dr. Richard van Breemen, found that CBDA, CBGA and THCA could “synergize” with each other to create a greater disruptive effect against infection than either one could do by themselves. This would appear to validate the “entourage effect” theory initially proposed by Israeli cannabis scientist Raphael Mechoulam. In fact, van Breemen would seem to concur: “This speaks to the idea that the supplement, containing a complex extract of a plant, sometimes is better than monotherapy in the traditional drug approach, where you purify it and use only one compound at a time.”

However, even with treatments and vaccines gaining emergency FDA approval, this study is only the beginning of a long road for such a cannabinoid compound to reach the marketplace. The OSU study is in vitro, meaning that it is a preliminary trial not conducted on either humans or animals, and tests on both would be needed to determine whether these results could be replicated. The vast majority of such in vitro tests often fail or fall short when introduced into far more complex environments found within human or animal subjects. As Imperial College Medical Cannabis Research Group head Mikael Sodergren told Fortune, “If [the human body] were like a petri dish, then we would have cured cancer by now.” And even if such a treatment successfully jumped through every hoop currently placed in front of it, its final form would disappoint internet meme-makers everywhere. Van Breemen envisions a potential future product to be more of a pill or a gummy, and it would be taken, similar to the Merck or Pfizer pills, early on in the lifecycle of infection. Similar drugs which block virus-receptor activity have been used successfully in treating other viral infections like HIV, and hemp has the added benefit of safe, therapeutic use throughout human history, notes van Breemen.

And in the meantime, other cannabinoids continue to be explored for possible treatment. For instance, a preprint from researchers at the University of Chicago found a sample of patients taking CBD “had significantly lower SARSCoV-2 infection incidence of up to an order of magnitude relative to matched pairs or the general population.” Many questions continue to be unanswered, such as dosages, drug-drug interactions and whether such treatments may work on future variants (for instance, while researchers considered it likely, the OSU study did not look into whether CBDA and CBGA would work on Omnicron or future variants.) But some of them will be answered, at least, by a plant that seemingly offers so much.