Can weed protect you from COVID?

Fikadu Tafesse did not expect to wake up Wednesday with a text in which his former mentor reproached him for his children’s new interest in grass. Earlier this week, Tafesse, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Oregon Health & Science University, published evidence that certain compounds found in cannabis plants may prevent the coronavirus from infecting cells. The internet latched onto the idea that weed could protect them from COVID: Twitter users created memes about the resin bong supposedly protecting their lungs from infection, the children of Tafesse’s mentor got wind of the weed’s miraculous healing powers, and late-night hosts reveled in the incongruous simplicity of marijuana that succeeded can -be where much-debated and ever-evolving public health measures had failed.

And that would be simple, right? These days, CBD stores invade abandoned storefronts like an opportunistic mould; THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes users feel good, is now legal in 18 states. It doesn’t matter that the cannabinoid compounds tested in the study are CBDA and CBGA, not the more familiar CBD and THC – they all come from cannabis plants, after all. Raw cannabis flower contains CBDA and CBGA, as do CBD oils, albeit in small amounts.

But frequent users of cannabis products shouldn’t consider themselves immune, no matter how thick a layer of bong resin may coat their lungs. “It’s a complete misinterpretation,” says Tafesse. “It’s just a lab study. We haven’t done any kind of clinical trial, or even [use] an animal model.

What the researchers actually did was test whether CBDA and CBGA could, when mixed with cells in a dish, protect them against coronavirus infection. They had good reason to do so: they had previously observed that these cannabinoids bind to the coronavirus spike protein, which the virus uses to latch onto and enter cells. Monoclonal antibodies also bind to this protein, and that’s how they protect people from COVID: with another molecule attached to it in the right way, the spike protein is effectively useless. With enough CBDA or CBGA mixed in cultured cells, Tafesse found, these compounds could also stop the infection.

“It’s an interesting first observation,” says Nevan Krogan, director of the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. “But a lot more work is needed to say there is value here.”

After all, working in a Petri dish is a relatively low bar for a drug to go missing. The conventional wisdom in pharmaceutical science is that out of 10,000 drugs that show potential efficacy, only one will make it to market. Food experiments must be followed by animal studies, and then comes the rigorous gauntlet of human trials. And between cells and humans, there are many things that can go wrong. In a dish, scientists can deliver a drug precisely where it is needed, but it is difficult to know in advance how drugs will travel through a body and whether they will reach their targets, such as the lungs and airways. upper respiratory tract. At this point, it’s impossible to know how CBDA and CBGA will fare, but the odds aren’t fantastic.

Other drugs that showed similar early promise for treating COVID have since failed spectacularly, harming users and sowing political discord in the process. Ivermectin, azithromycin, and hydroxychloroquine all fought coronavirus infection in cells, but we now know they do nothing to prevent or treat COVID in humans. But at least cannabinoids are largely safe; humans have been guinea pigs in their phase 1 trial for millennia. Richard van Breemen, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Oregon State University and lead author of the paper, hopes their known safety will help him and his team move the compounds into human trials sooner. .

Even if cannabinoids work better than anyone could have imagined in these trials, there will still be no reason to smoke more joints or eat more weed brownies, at least as far as COVID is concerned. CBDA and CBGA are sort of the “raw” form of the more familiar CBD and CBG (THCA plays the same role as THC). When users smoke cannabis or make candy from it, they heat CBDA, CBGA, and THCA, turning them into their shorter counterparts. If you want to get high, that’s good news, because THCA has no psychological effects. If CBDA and CBGA are your goal, however, you’ll need to look for another delivery method. Vs Twitter bong resin contains no CBDA or CBGA at all – and smoking weed, like all types of tobacco, could increase the risk of COVID-related complications.

It’s not impossible to get your hands on CBDA. Some online stores sell it in tincture form, although it appears to have run out of stock in some places recently, and you can still eat a cannabis plant if you’re really desperate. While the idea of ​​consuming unpleasant-tasting oils with unknown health benefits appeals, they’re unlikely to cause harm, though van Breemen cautions that “recommended dosages are there for a reason.”

But based on the amount of cannabinoids scientists had to administer to protect cells, Joshua Brown, a professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy at the University of Florida, thinks those recommended doses are extremely unlikely to have any effect. effect. And for an oil that probably does nothing, CBDA is expensive, around $2-4 per recommended dose. To have even a chance of protection, Brown estimates, would require spending upwards of $60 a day — and the safety of such large doses is unknown, as van Breemen pointed out.

“It probably won’t hurt [users] in any way except financially,” Brown says. But at this point, he adds, there’s also very little evidence that it will help. “The main benefit we could get from cannabis right now,” he says, “is just relaxation.”

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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