Can cannabis prevent COVID? Maybe – but not by smoking it, experts say. What to know

A new Oregon State University study suggests that cannabis compounds can prevent COVID-19 from infecting human cells. Smoking marijuana won’t help, experts say.
A new Oregon State University study suggests that cannabis compounds can prevent COVID-19 from infecting human cells. Smoking marijuana won’t help, experts say. AP

A study that suggests components of cannabis can prevent coronavirus infections has sparked quite a buzz on social media.

And in case you’re wondering, smoking weed won’t protect against the virus, experts say.

Two cannabis sativa plant compounds — CBGA and CBDA — were found to prevent coronavirus and its “emerging variants” from infecting human kidney cells in a laboratory, peer-reviewed study by researchers at Oregon State University.

The compounds did so by binding “to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, blocking a critical step in the process the virus uses to infect people,” according to a Jan. 10 university news release about the research.

The work has attracted loads of attention and says that alongside vaccines, “small-molecule therapeutic agents are needed to treat or prevent infections” by coronavirus.

“All this time we’ve been listening to the CDC, we should have been eating CBD,” joked comedian Jimmy Kimmel on TV Jan 12 about the study, mentioning another cannabis compound that’s sometimes legally sold in stores, the New York Times reported.

The more familiar psychoactive cannabis compound — THC — produces a sense of euphoria when smoked or ingested in edibles.

“The first thing to note before everyone goes out tries to prevent COVID-19 infection via pot smoking is that these are in vitro experiment,” Dr. Michael Beazely, an associate professor at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, told McClatchy News.

This means human kidney cells were tested, not humans themselves.

Additionally, “the study used hemp derived CBD and CBG-A in quantities virtually impossible to obtain from smoking weed,” former cannabis lawyer Kirk Tousaw pointed out on Twitter Jan. 12.

Study ‘hints at therapeutic potential’

Beazely believes the findings are “interesting” as well as “preliminary.”

The research provides “some hints at therapeutic potential,” Beazely said, but it doesn’t “provide any evidence for clinically-relevant (i.e. human disease) effects. They serve well as the basis for future studies including more in vitro work, preclinical animal work, and human studies.”

The cannabis compounds were examined through an “affinity selection-mass spectrometry” screening, according to the study.

This was done “to identify small molecules (certain cannabinoids) that are able to interact with the SARS-CoV spike protein” and “measure the effect these compounds, including CBDA and CBGA, on the ability of SARS-CoV to infect cultured cells,” Beazely elaborated.

But the compound “CBDA is not the CBD” that’s “readily available” for some “if they live in a state that allows CBD sales,” Kari L. Franson, a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California, told McClatchy News.

Additionally, “if you smoke a joint, you actually inhale more CBD, not CBDA,” Beazely said.

As a result of the study’s findings, Dr. Richard van Breemen told VICE that researchers know that “that CBD, CBG and THC are not active against the virus” if smoked and they “would recommend in favor of an oral administration of these compounds instead of smoking them, inhaling them from vaping.”

More research needed

The researchers write that the concentration of the compounds needed to block infection are “high but might be clinically achievable.”

“An important step in identifying potential therapies that may protect against COVID-19 is to evaluate them first in a laboratory setting,” Dr. Lisa Holle, a clinical professor at the University of Connecticut, told McClatchy News.

However, she agreed with Beazely in that “before these therapies can be really proven to be effective, and safe, they need to be studied in several other settings, such as in animal models and then humans.”

“Because we haven’t studied this in humans and with current circulating variants, much is unknown,” said Holle , adding that they wouldn’t recommend cannabis use based on this study.

Franson pointed to a prior study that “showed CBD had the ability to block” the coronavirus spike protein and said van Breemen’s findings refute that earlier research.

“It is unfortunate we have conflicting results with an earlier trial,” Franson said.

During the Q&A with VICE, van Breemen acknowledged how “there have been reports that some of the other connected cannabinoids like CBD certainly have anti-inflammatory activity.”

Smoking anything, including marijuana, is a risk factor for COVID-19 since it affects the lungs, WebMD explains.

Van Breemen told VICE he hoped “to see a follow up study where we start developing what the oral dose ought to be” and said that the work “is an important sort of basic science discovery.”

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This story was originally published January 13, 2022 2:40 PM.

Julia Marnin is a McClatchy National Real-Time reporter covering the southeast and northeast while based in New York. She’s an alumna of The College of New Jersey and joined McClatchy in 2021. Previously, she’s written for Newsweek, Modern Luxury, Gannett and more.
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