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Can cannabis prevent COVID-19? We asked experts what a viral study actually means, and the answer is complicated

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It’s rare to see a research report become an internet sensation, but that’s what happened when Oregon State University published a study showing cannabis compounds blocking COVID-19 infection earlier this month.

According to the researchers involved, the study claimed some cannabis compounds have the potential to “prevent as well as treat” COVID-19 infection. The report, titled “Cannabinoids Block Cellular Entry of SARS-CoV-2 and the Emerging Variants” was published in the Journal of Natural Products on January 10th and quickly summarized in breathless reports on radio and TV news, plus blogs and email newsletters with varying degrees of depth and veracity.

What they found was that cannabidiolic acid (or, CBDA) and cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) were able to bind to the virus’ spike proteins when tested in a tissue culture. These spike proteins act as a kind of key that allows the coronavirus to spread through cells, meaning these compounds could (theoretically) stop some COVID-19 infections before they even begin.

RELATED: Cannabis compounds blocked COVID-19 infection in laboratory study

The news went viral overnight. Twitter and Reddit users were soon posting plans to smoke as much weed as possible to prevent COVID-19 infection (some ironic, some not so much), and making claims that cannabis had shielded them from COVID during the Omicron surge.

So, does this mean cannabis will protect me from COVID?

No. It won’t “protect you” like you’re thinking. As is the case with most cannabis research, the real implications of this study aren’t nearly so simple. And by that we mean you definitely shouldn’t expect your edibles to make you immune to COVID-19, but let’s explore this more deeply, because that’s what journalism is for.

CBGA and CBDA (the compounds tested in this study) are both what is known as “acidic cannabinoids,” meaning they are the precursors to the more widely recognized CBD and CBG molecules. They are the molecules as they exist in the hemp plant, prior to decarboxylation.

RELATED: What are Acidic Cannabinoids, and How Do They Work?

In their acidic form, CBD and CBG will not pass the blood-brain barrier, meaning they won’t produce the stress-relieving, mildly sedative effects CBD and CBG products are known for.

It’s important to recognize that THC, the most recognizable cannabis compound, was not tested in this study.

Though less popular and scarcely researched, CBGA and CBDA oil is still sold in tincture form by certain manufacturers, and there is some evidence that acidic cannabinoids may be anti-inflammatory, and have serotonin-producing properties.

However, because of the little research conducted on acidic cannabinoids and the lack of regulation in certain states, it’s difficult to know whether CBGA and CBDA products are legit. Dr. Kenneth Weinberg, Chief Medical Officer at Cannabis Doctors of New York, says he does not feel comfortable prescribing acidic cannabinoids at this time because they are so new to the market.

But why not take CBGA and CBDA oil to try to boost COVID resistance or COVID immunity?

It’s not as simple as that, either. According to physician and cannabis clinician Dr. Leigh Vinocur, there’s a major gap between a cannabis compound preventing infection in a lab and dispensary cannabis products protecting humans from COVID-19­­.

“We’re a long way from saying cannabis can prevent COVID,” Vinocur told GreenState. “This was a preclinical in-vitro trial, meaning these cells were tested in a test tube, not in humans.”

Vinocur explained that, while preclinical trials are an important part of what it takes to create a drug, human trials have to be done before a drug is considered legitimate. This is in large part because dosing does not need to be considered in a test tube, but becomes very important when you start thinking about how to get the required concentration of a given substance into the human body safely.

In this case, researchers used CBDA and CBGA with a concentration 1,000x the average concentration of the CBDA and CBGA usually found in human tissue. To get this kind of concentration in the human body, Vinocur said, the patient would have to ingest obscene amounts of CBGA or CBDA, if it’s possible at all, thanks to the way acidic molecules interact with the human metabolism.

RELATED: Cannabis is being used in concierge nursing services. A new era for home care?

“You have to think about the way the human body metabolizes compounds,” Vinocur said. “CBGA and CBDA lipid molecules, meaning they have a hard time being absorbed. The problem with creating medicines with lipid types of molecules is that they may have trouble being absorbed by the gut, and if they aren’t absorbed by the gut they will have a hard time getting into other cells.”

Vinocur added that even if there was a way for a human to absorb the amount of CBDA and CBGA required to produce the COVID-repelling effect observed in the preclinical study, researchers would have to consider how the drug would be dosed.

It’s not a question of whether high doses of acidic cannabinoids like this would be safe (CBGA and CBDA are on the market today and are known to have no major side effects, and it’s nearly impossible to overdose on cannabis products) but it may be that such high concentrations of the compounds would be required that the drug would be completely inaccessible.

Vinocur explained that, while the compounds tested in this study are on the market, they are generally expensive. This is because CBGA and CBDA are the precursors to CBD and CBG in the cannabis plant, which means they are very unstable. A slight change in environmental conditions can trigger a chemical reaction that will transition them into CBD or CBG very quickly, so it’s difficult to grow and extract these compounds.

Additionally, the concentrations used in the study are so high, it may just be impossible to ask people to consume that much of the compound orally.

“One thing you have to establish is medication for anything is dosing, and if you can never get a human to consume that much CBGA or CBDA, it won’t work,” Vinocur said.

At the same time, Weinberg says he took full-spectrum CBD before going to a wedding last weekend, and asked his family members to do the same. It’s not that he thinks CBD will prevent him from getting COVID—he and his family are vaccinated and practiced standard safety measures before and during the event. He just couldn’t think of a reason not to.

“It seems that some cannabis compounds have COVID-blocking capabilities, even if they’re very weak,” Weinberg said. “CBD has no major side effects—it can’t hurt, and there’s a small chance there is some benefit to getting certain cannabinoids in your system.”

Other studies have been conducted on the relationship between COVID and cannabis. What makes this study any different?

This isn’t the first time the scientific community has drawn a connection between COVID and cannabis. In the early days of the pandemic, a study claiming high-CBD cannabis could mitigate susceptibility to the coronavirus unleashed a flood of misinformation circulating around social media that was comparable to what we’re seeing today. Other reports on the subject were released soon after.

Vinocur says there are two main things that make January’s study different from this 2020 report and those like it. First, it was peer-reviewed, and second, there were no stakeholders from CBD or cannabis businesses funding the research.

Additionally, most of the research conducted in 2020 tested animal cells, not human cells.

So, what’s next for cannabis and COVID research?

Like any drug, these cannabis compounds must undergo more preclinical trials before they can be tested on humans. And once they make it to clinical trials, there is still more testing to be done before they can be offered as a treatment, if that’s even a possibility.

It’s difficult to research cannabis in the U.S. since the product is still considered a Schedule I drug under federal law. However, these compounds are technically considered hemp, since they contain less than 0.3% THC. Hemp was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, and is therefore slightly easier to test than THC-heavy cannabis.

Still, Weinberg said that process will likely take at least a year, if not more.

“There’s a lot of research being done right now, that for a variety of reasons is not being publicized, into the different cannabinoids (being used) for COVID,” Weinberg told GreenState. “I’d imagine this Oregon study is one of many that will be happening. But the problem is how long it will take to get from the lab to clinical studies, and doing a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on compounds related to a Schedule I drug.”

While this seems like a long time, Weinberg said there is a very real possibility that COVID is here to stay. In that case, any research into treatment and prevention, no matter how slow, will be helpful.

Bottom line on protecting yourself from COVID with cannabis:

Overall, this study doesn’t change anything about the way we should go about protecting ourselves from COVID-19, and it won’t for a long time.

Getting vaccinated, getting a booster shot, and wearing a mask remain the most effective methods for keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.

The cannabis compounds tested were acidic cannabinoids CBGA and CBDA, not THC, so don’t think lighting up before going out in public will prevent you from getting COVID-19.

And even if you have CBDA and CBGA oil on hand, health experts say it’s still unclear whether it’s even possible for humans to consume the high concentration of acidic cannabinoids used in this study (and we don’t recommend trying it at home.)

But that doesn’t mean this report isn’t worth some hype. It shows there is some potential for cannabis compounds to aid in the fight against a global pandemic, and it may lead to more cannabinoid research in the future.

 

Elissa Esher is an editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@greenstate.com.