The current coronavirus health crisis has forced us to get locked inside our houses for at least two months. This has favoured the appearance of all sorts of information regarding this new disease that has devastated the world. Amongst the flood of hoaxes and fake news, we found some that link the consumption of cannabis with curing COVID 19. We consulted several specialists and traced the source of this news to find the truth.
It all began in February, apparently, when the news aggregator CannabisN24 echoed a piece according to which marijuana could be a possible cure for coronavirus. The news explained that there is a scientific team in the UK that claims that a molecule in cannabis could kill the virus, specifically the THCV. This “news” has received 3.267 visits so far and has been shared through Instagram and Youtube channels of the same website. More than 24.000 total visits through different means.
This is odd, since it is a fake news story, literally copied from the satirical page Cerebrother, that was published the same day as the one in the so-called cannabis news site. At this point we are even suspicious of the existence of the writer who signed the piece, someone by the name of Hernán González.
The text is identical, it can be easily checked: same names, same component (THCV), a cannabinoid antagonist of CB1 and CB2 that would have little to do with a possible “cure” for COVID19.
The fake news spread amongst the cannabis community, reaching peaks of fanatism at certain points. Consumers claimed to know the cure for the pandemic, they consulted homeopathic literature and thought they were in possession of greater knowledge than the sharpest scientists. What started off as a joke ended up being a hoax that shaped reality in an unexpected way.
Research in Canada
There had been no scientific study linking cannabis to a cure for COVID 19 when Cerebrother published the joke. Currently we still do not know of any drug or medicine that could stop this illness.
April 19th saw the publishing of a study, the result of research by a group of scientists from Lethbridge University, Canada, that suggested the possibility of cannabis being a therapy for coronavirus. The leader of the group, Ukrainian Igor Kovalchuk, was interviewed for an article published in the Argentinian website Perfil; an interview published in May and signed by Santiago Carrillo. The Lethbridge University professor works in the field of plant biotechnology, and specifically medicinal plants. “The results about COVID come from our studies on arthritis, Crohn’s disease and others”, said the scientist. “The cannabis extracts reduce the level of several proteins necessary for the virus to penetrate the cells, like enzyme ACE2. Reducing the number of receptors in the cellular surface reduces the chances for the virus to infect it. Moreover, since the virus forces a rise in the number of receptors, the extracts can also diminish the seriousness of the illness”.
Kovalchuk pointed at oils, sprays, and pills as main routes of administration, and rejected the idea of consuming it after combustion, as in smoking. That would only harm the airways of patients, making the situation worse or placing them at risk zone.
We asked two doctors specialised in cannabis to find out what is true in the Canadian research. Dr. Mariano García de Palau is Medical Director in Kalapa Clinic in Barcelona. Mario Land is the President of the Endocannabiology Clinical Society in Spain and Medical Director of the Vita Santé Medical Centre.
“Cannabis curing COVID 19 is, currently, fake news. Obviously, the smokers are a risk group because they inhale the cannabis after burning it. The cannabis administered otherwise, like vaping, can be used, since the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD can be useful in this process. Patients under cannabis treatment can continue to use it during the pandemic in a safe way”, explains García de Palau.
“Smokers are a risk group: they have a bigger expression of ACEC receptors (tyrosine kinase) in the lungs. A long-time smoker has more difficulties in facing this illness, like anybody suffering from previous respiratory pathologies. With COVID19 there is a big inflammatory response in the third phase of the illness. This generates what is known as a cytokine storm, which is responsible for the high mortality: an uncontrolled response of our immune system”, points out García de Palau.
Furthermore, this situation could escalate. Apart from the lung malfunction, the formation of micro and macro thrombus in the bloodstream could, as Dr Land mentions, “turn into an embolism or a stroke”.
Both doctors agree in highlighting the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis, especially CBD molecule. “From that point of view, we think that CBD could be useful in the inflammatory phase. Cannabinoids are immune system regulators, and in the case of COVID19 there is an immune response that is out of control. Could cannabis save the patient’s life? Nowadays, I would say no, but we need to do research and study many data”, comments Dr García de Palau.
In contrast with the caution shown by Dr García de Palau, Dr Land is optimistic, even though this therapy cannot be applied in acute stage, where life is at risk.
“There are universities that have done research and are publishing studies. There are even investigations on the use of cannabis as an adjuvant for the treatment of the chronic lung inflammatory disease. There is sufficient scientific support to assert that this could work, for instance, in Igor Kovalchuk’s group study. We are waiting for the end results of the process. Cannabis is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatories existing today. But remember, this medicine could stop the illness, not the infection. Obviously, only if there has been previous consumption and not through inhaling smoke, but via the modulation of the immune system”, says Dr Mario Land.
“The cannabis smoker is more prone to contagion. Please, be careful”, recommends García de Palau. “Do cannabinoids protect from the disease? I cannot affirm this categorically. I do not have sufficient data. Can I feel safe if I am a consumer? I would say no, not with the data that we have gathered so far. We need to be extremely cautious, there is not sufficient evidence. This study points in that direction, but it does not seem to be enough information to confirm the use. Works are being exceptionally pre-published, they go through fewer controls and without a precise filter. Everything is being published now because an answer to this pandemic is needed. Cannabis does not cure COVID 19 and has never cured it, amongst other reasons, because this is the first time that this SARS-COV2 has appeared. However, it could have interesting results in junction with other therapies”.