First things first: there is no cure for Covid-19. But because cannabis has been used as medicine for millennia and modern research shows it to be a potential treatment for dozens of disorders, there have been many scientific studies in this last year focused specifically on how this natural plant ally might help mitigate the complications of the virus. With the science now in, the results from some of the top studies are well worth compiling and summarizing for the benefit of all.
Cannabis: A Potential Anti-Viral
In April 2020, just a month after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Canada proposed a possible prevention strategy utilizing high CBD varieties of cannabis. Because the Covid virus attaches to cell receptors via an enzyme called ACE2, the researchers computer modeled different strains of cannabis until they identified “13 high CBD C. sativa extracts that modulate ACE2 gene expression and ACE2 protein levels.” Ina follow-up interview in May with the Calgary Herald, Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, the study’s head researcher claimed that several of the strains they identified reduced the number of virus receptors by up to 73 percent.
“If they can reduce the number of receptors, there’s much less chance of getting infected,” he told the newspaper. In the study’s conclusion, Kovalchuk and the other researchers recommend further investigation into the development of easy-to-use CBD-based preventative treatments for “at-home or clinical use.”
A Korean study published in October of 2020 looked specifically at the anti-viral properties of 32 different cannabinoids against Covid-19. In their research, they found every single one showed binding activity against the receptor used by Covid-19. Even more remarkable, they found not only that CBD and THC were the most active cannabinoids but that both “were observed to be more potent antiviral molecules against SARS-CoV-2” than the commonly used anti-viral pharmaceutical drugs lopinavir, chloroquine, and remdesivir.
“Our findings suggest cannabidiol (CBD) and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are possible drugs against human coronavirus that might be used in combination or with other drug molecules to treat COVID-19 patients.” the researchers concluded.
Cannabis: A Powerful Anti-Inflammatory
Early in the pandemic, an article published by researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha called for looking at the potent anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis and how they might help minimize the lung and other organ inflammations that often characterize serious cases of Covid-19. Both major cannabinoids have shown potent anti-inflammatory properties in studies in the past, for example, this Brazilian study from 2019 shows CBD can reduce airway inflammation in asthma cases and this 2019 Tulane University study found THC mediates andreduces intestinal inflammation in monkeys suffering from Simian Immune Deficiency (SIV).
One of the most deadly complications of Covid-19 is an inflammatory lung condition called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). People who develop ARDS frequently end up in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and are commonly treated with ventilator machines.
A study conducted at the University of South Carolina in June 2020 found that THC in particular may be a highly protective agent against the inflammation that leads to ARDS. The researchers gave two groups of mice a dose of a type of gram-positive bacteria known to “trigger” ARDS, and then they treated one of the groups of mice with THC. Surprisingly, all of the mice that were given THC following bacterial exposure survived while the other group suffered a 100 percent fatality rate. The researchers concluded that the study suggests that THC “inhibits inflammation and ARDS” and recommended that further studies be done to see if “cannabinoids can be used to treat Covid-19 related ARDS” in humans.
Back at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, Dr. Kovlachuk and his team also continued to study the mechanisms by which cannabis may be able to mediate Covid-19 complications, particularly the “cytokine-storms” that are responsible for severe inflammation. In a study published in January 2021, the team tested a variety of cannabinoids on human skin that was treated with UV light in order to produce inflammation. They found that the cannabinoids actually downregulated two of the most “crucial” cytokines involved in the inflammation process that leads to fatal conditions like ARDS. Dr. Kovalchuk’s team concluded that anti-cytokine cannabis extracts “can be useful additions to the current anti-inflammatory regimens to treat COVID-19”.
Cannabis: A Whole Plant Medicine
In a follow-up interview with Forbes Magazine, Dr. Kovalchuk explained that his team was not surprised by the results because they had been studying cannabis for years and knew it had potent anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to which compounds work the best, he indicated that the whole plant itself is the best medicine:
“As to specific chemicals, our analysis shows that CBD or THC alone do not have the same effect. We strongly believe in the full-spectrum, entourage-based effects,” he told Forbes, adding that there are likely other compounds like terpenes that contribute to the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis.
Terpenes are the aromatic essential oils present in cannabis that give it such a strong smell and are also known to possess medicinal properties. In fact, an Israeli study published in August 2020 found that when two key cannabis terpenes were added to CBD, it doubled the anti-inflammatory effectiveness of the formula against the cytokines responsible for Covid-19 complications.
While much of the cannabis research funded by pharmaceutical companies focus on single molecules, the idea that the whole plant or whole-plant extracts that exhibit an “entourage effect” are superior to isolated cannabis compounds is nothing new. Various cannabis compounds have a synergistic effect in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts proposed legendary Israeli cannabis researcher, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, back in 1998.
When it comes to Covid-19, cannabis has already been declared “essential” during the pandemic in 20 different states in the USA as well as the entire county of Canada. Based on the current state of research showing the mighty herb’s diverse and potent effects on the virus, it’s no surprise that calls to integrate cannabis into therapeutic treatment options are already emerging from within the medical community.
Ocean Malandra is a widely published travel, food, and environmental journalist that divides his time between Northern California and South America. You can read more of his work here: oceanmalandra.contently.com