Can cannabis help fight COVID-19?

  • As long as COVID-19 is concerned, we’re in a race against the clock, and cannabis components may prove useful for the development of a potential vaccine candidate or other drugs meant to alleviate symptoms.
  • Keep reading to learn about the different lines of research currently underway.

Many scientists are planning to look into the potential of cannabis for the treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Cannabis' anti-inflammatory effects have already been studied for the treatment of diseases involving an anti-inflammatory response. So, with the outbreak of COVID-19, several scientists have set their sights on joining this global battle against the virus. Given the wide range of drugs being examined in the quest for a "cure" (from hydroxychloroquine to the drug remdesivir), cannabis inevitably consolidates as a potential component of a viable vaccine candidate as well.

Plant-based COVID-19 vaccine

Researchers specialising in infectious disease at the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) have turned to cannabis as a new COVID-19 virus vaccine candidate. The research team claims that a plant-based antigen might be easier to produce on a broad scale than animal-based antigens due to their ability to clone proteins more easily. Additionally, plant-based proteins could be more appealing to an increasingly vegan population.

The genetic information being developed to find the actual antigen that would work as a vaccine is a strand of proteins to be introduced in a cannabis plant so the plant itself can manufacture that same strand of proteins.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) previously produced two animal-based coronavirus vaccines, one for cattle and another one for pigs. The company is well-known as the first lab in Canada to have a vaccine candidate for animal testing, meaning the vaccine will be tested on mice, ferrets, and monkeys infected with coronavirus after its administration. As no species has the same reaction as human beings, the use of three different animals broadens the security spectrum. In addition, the International Vaccine Centre received a 23 million-dollar grant in federal funding last March to help with its COVID-19-related research. So judging by its long list of achievements, VIDO-InterVac could be onto something really big this time as well.

Made in Israel "exomes"

InnoCan Pharma, an Israeli company specialised in the manufacturing of cannabinoid-based drugs to combat psoriasis and muscle pain, recently established a partnership with Ramot, the technology transfer arm of the University of Tel Aviv, to work on a new treatment for COVID-19 using CBD-loaded exomes.

The exomes are small particles created when mother cells multiply. They not only act as guided missiles designed to target damaged organs, but they also play an important role in cell-to-cell communications. According to a press release, "CBD-loaded exosomes have the potential to provide a highly synergistic effect of anti-inflammatory properties and help in the recovery of infected lung cells. When the cell healing properties of exosomes are combined with the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD, we expect to obtain this synergistic effect," says InnoCan.

InnoCan is not the only Israeli company trying to recruit cannabis in the fight against the virus, though. Some researchers from the Center for Cannabis Research at Rambam Heath Care Campus in Haifa have been studying the effect of cannabis on severely ill COVID-19 patients and plan to start with clinical trials in the coming months. To be more precise, they are trying to find out whether the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis can help prevent a severe inflammatory reaction known as cytokine storm, responsible for the deaths of many COVID-19 patients. 15 different strains of cannabis have been identified to have the potential to prevent this storm and so improve the situation of patients at risk. COVID-19 patients are mostly being treated with steroids, and this study aims to prove the effectiveness of a CBD and steroid-based treatment.

Terpenes for treating viral infections

The use of a cannabis terpene formulation for the treatment and prevention of viral infections in high-risk populations is also being studied.

In a 2007 study, a group of Chinese scientists discovered that the combination of different terpenes had strong anti-SARS-CoV effects in-vitro and in-vivo, or, in other words, in a petri dish as well as in living organisms. Plant-based compounds managed to block the protein responsible for the spread of the virus.

Following this line of action, Israeli researchers are planning to create a new combination of terpenes to be used in the treatment of COVID-19. It will be given to patients through direct inhalation. The cannabis research company, Cannasoul Analytics Ltd., together with Prof. Dudi Meiri from the Israel Institute of Technology, will work on the development of two studies. The first aimed at attenuating the patient's immune response to COVID-19 and the second at slowing down disease spread by reducing the expression of the ACE2 receptor (a protein that allows the virus to inject its genetic expression into cells and proliferate).

"We'll try to identify the plant's molecules that are capable of suppressing the immune response to the COVID-19 coronavirus, which causes inflammation. Cannabis plant molecules can lower the immune system response without suppressing it, providing a better treatment to the steroids, which completely suppress the immune system", said Meiri in an interview.

CBD to keep the virus out

Another therapeutic way to combat the virus is by preventing its entry. A team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta (Canada), published a preliminary article about the possible effects of cannabidiol, or CBD, on COVID-19 transmission. High-CBD extracts were found to help block ACE2 and TMPRSS2 proteins, which are a key gateway for the SARS-Cov-2 virus to enter host cells.

Apparently, the combination of CBD and other cannabinoids modulates ACE2 expression, thereby reducing the likelihood of the virus entering human cells and reproducing.

Initial data suggest that 13 Cannabis sativa extracts with high levels of the anti-inflammatory CBD can modulate ACE2 expression in COVID-19 target tissues, meaning they could be used to develop preventive treatments in the form of a mouthwash or gargle products for both clinical and home use.

With such a varied array of studies and the rapid spread of the virus, all therapeutic possibilities must be considered. Cannabis increases our chances of fighting a disease that has completely changed our perception of the world almost like no other substance.


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