On January 20, 2022, Dr. Marsha Rosner, a cancer biologist from the University of Chicago, published a research paper in Science Advances with results that could possibly change the course of the pandemic. In the study, she and a team of scientists from a variety of disciplines found a correlation between cannabidiol (CBD) and COVID virion replication. That is, the data collected thus far suggests that CBD may have the ability to inhibit COVID-19, or more specifically SARS-CoV-2’s ability to replicate in its host cell. Although research is still in its preclinical stage, the results are promising.
The Inner Workings of COVID-19
To thoroughly understand CBD’s effect on COVID-19, it is necessary to first understand how the virus itself works. Firstly, COVID-19 is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Similar to any other virus, SARS infects its host by attacking healthy cells and using them to create replicas of itself, slowly growing to infect the whole organism it resides in.
However, the virus’s danger lies in the immune response it causes. The body’s immune system, once activated, continues to attack the body even after the virus has departed, causing a serious, and, at times, lethal illness. This “second phase” of the virus was the impetus for Dr. Rosner’s research, who attempted to de-escalate the body’s immune overreaction post-viral infection. CBD, however, worked in an unexpected manner.
“We did not expect CBD to work so early against the virus,” stated Rosner. Not only did the CBD work against the virus, it “directly inhibited viral replication in lung cells.” The serendipitous findings resulted in a deeper study into CBD’s effects on inhibiting the virus’s replication.
CBD May Hinder SARS-CoV-2 Replication
CBD is a chemical found in cannabis plants that is commonly used to treat patients with epilepsy. Unlike THC, a psychoactive chemical found in the variation of cannabis known as marijuana, CBD is found in hemp and does not have any psychoactive properties.
The dose and formulation of the CBD consumed matter, though it can still be found at your local dispensary or grocery store.
“It needs to be very pure and taken at a relatively high dose. We have found that the same item purchased from a commercial source is sometimes highly pure and sometimes not.”
Because CBD is not soluble in water, it would need to be taken in at a large enough quantity where the chemical would not entirely be pushed to the liver and rather enter the body’s bloodstream.
Cannabidiol works against the COVID-19 virus by activating the body’s normal responses to stress.
“This eventually induces an immune response involving the production of interferons that are anti-viral factors that bind to cells and prevent viral replication by a number of mechanisms.”
It was imperative throughout the study that the drug created to combat viral replication was not hyper-individualized. As COVID-19 has proven to be a rapid mutator, targeting its surface proteins would be an ineffective attempt as they change from variant to variant. However, the RNA needed for the virus to replicate does not change frequently, which is why the focus of the study was placed on enabling the host’s cells to fight against the virus’s ability to replicate.
“If we can find a drug that can target the host, maybe it can work for more pathogens.” Having a drug that targets multiple pathogens—any type of microorganism that causes disease—, or in this case multiple variants of SARS, prevents the drug from being too specific to one form of COVID-19 and allows for a more versatile solution to viral replication.
The Known and the Unknown
It has been proven that following CBD treatment, the RNA in SARS-CoV-2 is hindered from successfully instructing the virus on how to replicate. There has also been an examined correlation between those treated with CBD for epilepsy and negative COVID-19 test results. However, all evidence collected has been promising but preclinical.
“We do not know for certain if CBD will work against the virus at all.” Dr. Rosner emphasized this idea throughout her interview with the Acronym. “We know that it can help in mice and that’s usually the gold standard that it can work in people.”
So far, CBD has only been tested on the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants of COVID-19, though Rosner and her team of scientists are currently in the process of testing on Delta and Omicron.
CBD’s Prospective Use
There is still a sense of uncertainty surrounding the most effective method of taking CBD as clinical trials have not occurred yet. It is assumed that CBD would be most effective if taken prior to visiting high-risk areas or in the early days of infection.
“We are still waiting on the ok for clinical trials. We would have to find patients who have tested positive for COVID and see how treatment affects their viral load.” However, this drug would not void any standing COVID-19 regulations. Wearing a mask, taking vaccinations, and social distancing are still the most effective ways of warding off COVID-19. “It would essentially be used as another tool in the toolbox, not a replacement by any means.”
There is a possibility that CBD could cause liver damage due to its insoluble nature. For this reason, it would not be recommended for those with pre-existing liver damage. As always, consulting a physician is key prior to taking any medication.
The Future of COVID-19
Though more and more drugs are proving to be successful at responding to the illness, COVID-19 will likely still remain a part of our lives, just like the flu, a once deadly virus that has now become fairly easy to prevent. And, as research advances, the development of more effective drugs and vaccines to protect us against the virus is underway.
“Needless to say, we should be in much better shape next year. Maybe we will all end up healthier if we learn to conduct ourselves in a safer way. Things will get better.”