The emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has developed into the highly contagious Covid-19 pandemic. In these uncertain times, it is no wonder that people are seeking out answers about the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in managing or treating Covid-19.

There is still a lot of research that needs to be performed before any conclusive statements can be made about the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids for Covid-19. However, there is some evidence that the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids may be beneficial in severe cases of Covid-19. In order to understand how cannabinoids may be beneficial, you need to understand how cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system.

The Endocannabinoid System & Immune Function

The psychological and physiological effects of cannabis are mediated by the endocannabinoid system, a biological system consisting of cannabinoid receptors, endogenous cannabinoids, and their respective enzymes. 

According to taxonomic research, the endocannabinoid system evolved 600 million years ago, and it is present in all vertebrates (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, etc.) and invertebrates (nematodes, leeches, mollusks, etc.) Indeed, this bodily system is involved in essential life processes such as memory formation, motivation, motor functions, cognition, and more.

Cannabinoid receptors (such as CB1 and CB2) are located throughout the brain and body and play a key role in immune homeostasis. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors acting as signaling molecules that initiate downstream processes. Cannabinoids derived from cannabis mimic endocannabinoids and as a result bind to cannabinoid receptors.

The endocannabinoid system is known to modulate the immune system and maintain immune homeostasis. This has led some to hypothesize that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD could be useful therapeutic agents since they directly target the endocannabinoid system.

Could Cannabis Be A Possible Therapeutic Agent for Covid-19?

Cannabis has been suggested as a possible therapeutic agent for Covid-19, but there is no scientific consensus about whether cannabis could be effective in treating or preventing Covid-19. 

As of now, there is little peer-reviewed research, and it important to recognize that scientists are only beginning to unravel the complex nature of the disease. Despite that, misleading headlines have widely circulated on social media claiming that cannabis could treat the disease or prevent you from contracting Covid-19 in the first place.

As of now, there haven’t been any studies that investigate the effects of cannabinoids on the family of viruses known as coronaviruses. In addition, it is unclear whether the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids would be advantageous or disadvantageous if used for the treatment of Covid-19.

Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Cannabis & Covid-19

Cannabinoids act on the endocannabinoid system to reduce inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids and terpenes are one of the main therapeutic properties of cannabis. However, the anti-inflammatory effect of cannabinoids can be a double-edged sword because it can suppress the immune response that is necessary to properly protect the body from pathogens.

Despite that, cannabinoids may still be beneficial in viral illnesses where an overactive immune response leads to pathogenicity. Indeed, the leading cause of death for Covid-19 is cytokine storms from acute respiratory disorder.

Cytokine storms are a type of overactive immune response that results when the body releases an abnormally high amount of cytokines into the bloodstream. In normal immune responses, cytokines are essential for recruiting cells of the immune system and fighting infection. However, when too many cytokines are released into the body too quickly, it is harmful and may ultimately lead to death. 

Treating severe cases of Covid-19 resulting in acute respiratory disorder is the most promising area of research into the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids. As of now, it is unknown whether the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids could prevent cytokine storms, but there is some promising research.

One study performed on mice suggests that CBD could play a protective role during acute respiratory distress. Mice were given an immunostimulant that causes a reaction that presents similar symptoms as acute respiratory distress. In this study, CBD reduced the severity of the cytokine storm and protected pulmonary tissue from damage.

Further Areas of Research

More research is needed to understand the potential immunotherapeutic role of CBD and other cannabinoids in relation to Covid-19. Overall, it is plausible that CBD and other cannabinoids could be a therapeutic candidate for treating inflammatory conditions such as those seen in severe Covid-19.

Led by the University of Sao Paulo, CBD is being clinically researched for treating mild to moderate symptoms of Covid-19. In addition, the FDA recently approved a brand-new synthetic cannabinoid drug, ARDS-003. The new drug is set to begin phase-1 trials as a potential Covid-19 treatment in August of this year.

As suggested by the name, ARDS-003 is specifically designed to combat acute respiratory distress syndrome. Although the drug isn’t derived directly from the cannabis plant, it can modulate the endocannabinoid system in a similar manner to naturally occurring cannabinoids.

The global effort to find therapies and vaccines for Covid-19 will take top priority into 2021, yet scientific research into the effects of cannabinoids will likely lag behind. According to freelance journalist and Forbes contributor, Dr. Emily Earlenbaugh, the extent of restrictions on cannabis science is responsible for the lack of clinical research into the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids: “It’s a lot easier to have a clinical trial approved for a synthetic cannabinoid that isn’t cannabis-derived…. Technically, being Schedule I means that the government considers it to have no potential for medical use. So, generally, it’s not allowed to be tested on humans. So, because of that, a lot of companies have focused in on synthetic cannabinoids.”

There is still a lot to be learned from this pandemic and how medicinal cannabis could play a role in treating the disease. More and more research will continue to be pursued in an effort to find effective therapies. As of now, cannabinoids are being taken seriously as a therapeutic candidate due to their immune-modulating effects. Perhaps, they could be offered as a viable treatment option one day, but it is too soon to tell as of now.

References

Earlenbaugh, Emily. 2020. “Synthetic Cannabinoid Drug For Covid-19 Approved For Phase-1 Clinical Trials.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilyearlenbaugh/2020/08/20/synthetic-cannabinoid-drug-for-covid-19-approved-for-phase-1-clinical-trials/?sh=405176a43329

“Human Endocannabinoid System.” Cannabis Research Initiative​, UCLA , cannabis.semel.ucla.edu/endocannabinoid.

Khodadadi, Hesam. 2020. “Cannabidiol Modulates Cytokine Storm in Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome Induced by Simulated Viral Infection Using Synthetic RNA.” In Cannabis Cannabinoid Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7480719/.

Onaivi, Emmanuel Shan, and Venkatanarayanan Sharma. 2020. “Cannabis for COVID-19: Can Cannabinoids Quell the Cytokine Storm?” In Future Science OA. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7451410/.

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