“We don’t have very many good treatments for viruses,” Baban tells Inverse. “Not like we do for infections.”
How do cytokine storms work?
Macrophages also release very powerful proteins called cytokines. Cytokines are messengers that tell various infection-fighting white blood cells to rally the troops and fight the foreign pathogen.
Enter: The endocannabinoid system
In a controlled study published in September in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Baban and his team in Georgia artificially induced ARDS in mice using a treatment called Poly (I:C), which then created a cytokine storm and caused respiratory distress.
When it comes to cannabis’ benefits for COVID-19, the majority of the research points to its anti-inflammatory potential and how that might treat a dangerous symptom of the virus called a cytokine storm.
One peer-reviewed animal study from Augusta University in Georgia, aimed at investigating CBD’s potential for COVID-19, found that CBD was able to calm cytokine storms in mice that were in respiratory distress, and even reverse some of the damage left in the lungs from the cytokine storm.
“CBD looks promising in reducing the cytokine storm, which seems to be the most damaging aspect of COVID-19 infection,” says Dr. Frank Lucido, a family practice physician in Berkeley who works with medical cannabis patients. He adds that “any of the cannabinoids might have the anti-inflammatory property, but CBD is the most widely found one that is not THC.”
While we still don’t have answers to all our questions about cannabis and coronavirus, the past six months have brought more insight through scientific studies. These new studies shed some light on cannabis’ potential, but are still in very early phases — in animal and lab studies — rather than the human clinical trials that would more conclusively answer these questions.
While these two lines of research seem at odds, experts say cannabis may have potential to both help and hurt in COVID-19 — depending on when and how it is used.
Eric Brown, a microbiologist who led the work at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said cannabinoids were “clearly great drug-like compounds”, but noted it was early days in assessing the compounds for use in the clinic. “There is much work to do to explore the potential of the cannabinoids as antibiotics from the safety standpoint,” he said.
Mark Blaskovich, who studies antibiotic cannabis compounds at the University of Queensland, said cannabis seemed to be particularly rich in antibiotics, though other plants such as tea tree, garlic and the spices turmeric and curcurmin also contained antibacterials.
Bacteria fall into two classes depending on the makeup of their cells. MRSA bugs are known as gram positive bacteria, and have a single, thick cell membrane. Gram negative bugs differ in having inner and outer cell membranes, and these infections can be harder to treat. In the World Health Organization’s priority list of drug-resistant bacteria, all three ranked as a “critical” priority are gram negative, namely Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Enterobacteriaceae.
Scientists screened five cannabis compounds for their antibiotic properties and found that one, cannabigerol (CBG), was particularly potent at killing methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), one of the most common hospital superbugs.
Antibiotic resistance has become a major threat to public health. England’s former chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has said the loss of effective antibiotics would lead to “apocalyptic scenarios”, with patients dying from routine infections and many operations becoming too risky to perform.