Specific high-CBD strains of cannabis may help treat and prevent COVID-19 according to researchers at the University of Lethbridge.
In a study published in April, they claimed that certain cultivars of high-CBD strains of cannabis have the potential to make it more difficult for the virus to latch on to our lungs and other airways. The study is yet to be peer-reviewed, but their results, along with the results of many others working diligently on the problem, are promising. According to Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, one half of the husband and wife research team, potential products could see the market by the end of the year.
How Does it Work?
When someone gets infected with COVID-19, the virus usually enters the body through the airways and lands somewhere in the nose, mouth, throat, or lungs. Once there, it binds with a gateway protein called ACE2, usually found in the respiratory system, mouth and nose, and gastrointestinal system, among others. The more plentiful, or expressed, these receptors are, the easier it is for the virus to worm its way into our bodies and wreak havoc.
“Basically, we are bombarded with pathogens every day,” says Kovalchuk, “If it’s at a low enough rate, our immune system can eliminate it, with help from antibodies.”
With a higher expression of ACE2 and a brand new virus it has never seen before, your immune system gets overwhelmed and can sometimes have a deadly reaction. Kovalchuk explains, “The extracts indicated that we can reduce this expression [of ACE2]. We hypothesize that it can help with prevention.”
Dr. Kovalchuk and his colleagues have found evidence that certain strains of high-CBD cannabis can mediate this expression, or reduce the number of these gateway proteins, therefore making it more difficult for the virus to stick, so to speak. It’s well accepted in the medical community that ACE2 is the main path of entry for COVID-19, and since they are abundant in the same tissues that the virus targets, reducing their expression could be a great way to prevent it from invading our cells.
Using artificial human 3D models, the team whittled down a pool of over 800 newly developed Cannabis sativa lines and extracts to just 13 strains that were best at modulating the expression of ACE2. Out of those 13, three or four were “incredibly active” according to Dr. Kovalchuk.
Why Full-Spectrum CBD?
Not all CBD oil is created equally when it comes to virus-fighting. CBD is currently sold in three forms: full-spectrum, broad-spectrum and isolate. They are differentiated by the presence of THC and other compounds. Full-spectrum contains the full cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid profile of the plant, including trace amounts of THC. Studies have shown that cannabis and other plant medicines work better when all of these compounds are present. This is called the entourage effect.
“Personally, I believe that full-spectrum is better,” he says, “It’s a medicine that we are used to. Humans have evolved with cannabis for thousands of years. The endocannabinoid system is a highly sophisticated homeostasis system. It regulates stimulus to a lot of things and is a system of protection that builds balance.”
According to their study, “Terpenes and minor cannabinoids are responsible for the entourage effect, whereby whole plant extracts have more pronounced biological effects than individual cannabinoids. Based on the entourage effects, one could predict that whole flower extracts may be more potent than single compounds.”
Potential Future Applications
This evidence suggests that, pending further investigation by their team and the rest of the medical community, these specific cultivars could become a safe and useful addition to the treatment of COVID-19. They could be developed into many easy-to-use treatments that can be used in clinics or at home. The study suggests using products like inhalers, mouthwash, or oil taken orally.
Given that 20% of COVID-19 cases are considered severe enough to require a hospital stay, and anywhere between 2 – 10% will experience fatal, or near-fatal, pneumonia and respiratory failure, all of these options should be explored.
So, will the bottle of CBD oil in your cabinet stop you from getting the coronavirus? The short answer is, no. Dr. Kovalchuk warns against just rushing out to your nearest store to buy a bottle of CBD.
“It’s not a generic response,” he says, “Some [cultivars] were not effective, and some actually did harm.”
According to Dr. Kovalchuk, they are already in talks with Health Canada to continue testing and product development. It takes about 14 business days for human trials to be approved, and once that happens the trials will begin right away. He says that if everything goes according to plan, we could see these products available on the market within a few months.
“Wait, and be patient, because it will come to the market,” he says, “There’s no harm in taking CBD, but don’t just buy some pot or oil and take it thinking you’re not going to get infected. That’s just stupid.”
Photo courtesy of University of Lethbridge.