Does Cannabis really protect humans from COVID? Experts weigh in on recent science
The world was captivated this week by a laboratory study that found compounds in cannabis had the potential to stop COVID from entering human cells.
So does getting high increase immunity against COVID-19? Absolutely not, experts say. Four epidemiologists that Fortune spoke with agreed that while data from the study was interesting, provocative, and definitely worth investigating further, little conclusions could be drawn from it for the real world right now.
“It provoked this large response on the social media world because people thought, ‘Whoa, this is something I am already doing,’” says Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina.
Here’s what you need to know about the latest COVID cannabis study, and what it could mean, whether you’re lighting up or not.
What the study found
The initial laboratory study published on Wednesday in the Journal of Natural Products was conducted by researchers at Oregon State’s Global Hemp Innovation Center. They found that two chemical compounds in hemp—cannabigerolic acid, or CBGA, and cannabidiolic acid, or CBDA—bound to the coronavirus spike proteins, which allow the virus to enter human cells.
That means that some cannabis molecules were able to take away the virus’s ability to enter healthy cells, at least in a petri dish.
In another study published this week on BioRxiv.org, which has not yet been peer reviewed, researchers at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences exposed kidney cells to COVID genes together with cannabidiol or CBD, and found that CBD increased the innate immunity of cells to detect the coronavirus genes and destroy itself before replicating the virus, which would prevent the virus from spreading. The study was also done in a petri dish.
Despite the encouraging results of both studies, petri dishes don’t take into account the complexity of the human body, and the overwhelming majority of drug studies done in petri dishes do not translate to effective therapies in humans in clinical trials.
The data in itself is enough for further study, says Mikael Sodergren, head of Imperial College Medical Cannabis Research Group and managing director of Sapphire Medical cannabis clinic, but not enough for any conclusions to be drawn.
“The human body is a lot more complex than a petri dish. If it was like a petri dish, then we would have cured cancer by now.”
More testing is needed
The cannabis petri dish study is interesting and shows that cannabis may one day be useful to treat COVID, but epidemiologists say that more testing is needed.
“They’re at the first step,” says Cohen from UNC, who says those steps would include testing cannabis on COVID-19-infected animals, and then testing on humans in a clinical trial. “If you don’t do the orderly progression you end up with drugs that run very afoul in the medical community, and the world really.”
But that kind of research is expensive and likely demands major investment from the pharmaceutical industry.
Initial results of small petri studies of other drugs have been mischaracterized previously during the COVID epidemic, to devastating effect. Anti-parasitic drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin—both of which were found to inhibit the COVID-19 causative virus in in vitro studies but not in human clinical trials, according to Cohen—were touted as COVID treatments online, leading to the major spread of misinformation and people in hospitals demanding medication that is not effective at treating COVID.
According to Silvia Martins, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the findings from the cannabis study could be explored more, but everyone should be wary of similar hype.
“I would be very cautious of any overinterpretation or social media frenzy,” said Martins.
Thank you for not smoking
All the epidemiologists Fortune spoke with note that recreational cannabis in any form does not help in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.
“During the COVID pandemic, you should absolutely not smoke, because that is the one thing you can do to make your lung function worse,” Sodergren notes. “We don’t treat patients for COVID with medical cannabis precisely for the fact that we don’t have any, any clinical evidence to suggest that it is beneficial.”
Robin Duncan, lead author of the University of Waterloo study that found CBD increases the innate antiviral system in cells, explicitly states recreational marijuana in either THC or CBD form do not help immunity against COVID.
“I really urge people not to go out and start taking CBD gummies or oils,” he says.