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Separating myth from reality: The role of cannabinoids in COVID-19

From "".
December 2, 2020

By Faisal A. Islam, MD, MBA, BCMAS Zaid Ulhaq Choudhry Zia Choudhry, MD, PhD, MBA, MDedge

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An intriguing pattern has emerged for cannabis enthusiasts as a result of lockdowns and statewide safety restrictions for COVID-19.

Consumers, as of late, have been shopping for larger marijuana baskets per trip to the dispensaries in various states, including California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington, . However, they are also cutting down on the number of trips, perhaps, as a preventive measure to reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus during this pandemic. Sales dipped considerably by the end of March only to experience a resurgence after the issuing of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits.

For the past few years, cannabis consumption remained steady while the industry continued to thrive with robust sales of the drug. It is a recession-proof phenomenon, therefore presenting a unique opportunity for clinicians with respect to patient education and individualized care.1

An unfortunate carryover of the governmental restrictions, self-isolation, and social estrangement is that consumers are now turning to the dark web as a source for continuous supply of cannabis. Prepandemic, according to the U.N. 2020 World Drug Report, there was already a 30% increase in sales of cannabis between 2009 and 2018. COVID-19 has fractured the drug's supply chain and created an inescapable void that is being filled by drug traffickers.2 A clinical dilemma is posed when a user procures counterfeit cannabis or a drug batch with impurities.

Riding the cytokine storm

Cytokines are a host of proteins with designated regulatory and immune responses that play an instrumental role in cell signaling. The aptly named "cytokine storm" conjures up the image of an imperiled immune system spiraling out of control; it is, in fact, an extreme immune response that culminates into a massive influx of cytokines released into the bloodstream. Without the presence of an immunologic threat, cytokines are responsible for maintaining homeostasis and the functionality of immune cells. However, acute cytokine release (i.e., cytokine storm), as is the case with severe COVID-19, jeopardizes organ function (for example, interstitial lung disease) with clinical symptoms, such as fever, cough, dyspnea, and myalgia.

Benefits and drawbacks of immunosuppressive agents

To inhibit cytokine release (e.g., interleukin-6 cytokine levels), immunosuppressive agents such as tocilizumab have been leveraged to damper the body's overactive inflammatory response to perceived immunologic stressors, in particular, COVID-19. While the aforementioned agent was remarkably effective with respect to lung consolidation clearance in most of the patients tested, a host of untoward effects prevent its general applicability and use. However, a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska, Omaha, with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, San Antonio, might have stumbled upon a strategic workaround for mitigating the immune response.

They have proposed that cannabidiol (CBD) be used in lieu of other agents with potentially toxic effects. Animal and human trials have established that CBD confers a relatively high margin of safety coupled with favorable tolerance, providing a viable option for effectively targeting the inflammatory processes of SARS-CoV-2–based pulmonary disease. Furthermore, efficacy increased when CBD was combined with a terpene formulation, especially with respect to the more traditional steroid therapy.3

SARS-CoV-2 exhibits binding affinity for the ACE2 receptor, which is expressed in the lungs as well as other known predilection sites of infection. Ongoing studies attempt to modulate ACE2 expression, thereby eliminating its conspicuous role as "viral gateways," perhaps even more so in patients with lung pathologies (e.g., people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and smokers) as they already are prone to increased respiratory morbidity. CBD lacks tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or the psychoactive component of cannabis sativa, rendering the agent to be particularly attractive from a therapeutic perspective. In addition to being devoid of abuse potential, CBD exhibits remarkable anti-inflammatory properties. It should be noted that considerable overlap exists between tobacco and cannabis users, and it is too early to determine the impact on COVID-19. As opposed to cannabis's effect on ACE2 levels, smoking exhibits a proinflammatory role by up-regulating ACE2 expression.3 However, there are currently numerous conflicting reports in circulation about the positive effect of nicotine on COVID-19 outcome; confounding variables will need to be explored further in patients with a history of using nicotine and cannabis together.

From an immunologic perspective, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays an integral role in cell signaling by interacting with natural chemicals of the body, namely, cannabinoids with designated targets at the cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and the CB2, respectively. The CB2 receptor is of particular interest as it is intimately involved in immune homeostasis; the primary goal of these COVID-19 studies is to modulate the endocannabinoid system via targeted CB2 therapies to produce an immunosuppressant effect.4 CB2 activation, be it by means of THC or CBD agonism, may prove to be beneficial by inhibiting the cytokine influx.

Unfortunately, there is a general dearth of data on COVID-19–exposed cannabis users, whether the drug is consumed for medication or recreational purposes. It has been suggested that cannabis intake might contribute toward the development of a cough, complicating the overall clinical outcome for those infected with the virus. The presence of a cough, even in an otherwise asymptomatic individual, facilitates viral spread. As for those cannabis users experiencing COVID-19 symptomatology, they can expect rapid clinical deterioration, including pronounced fatigue and a change in mental status.

According to pulmonary specialists and representatives of the American Lung Association, recreational cannabis use may be associated with a bronchitis-like inflammation (comparable with chronic bronchitis/COPD for chronic users) of the airways, along the lines of cigarette smoking.5 As far as cannabis smokers are concerned, the rationale for lung irritation is believed to stem from the relatively large portion of unburnt plant content that is inhaled in a given joint. If there is a superimposed infection, as is the case with COVID-19, the patient may experience further risk of adverse respiratory effects. This serves as a diagnostic dilemma for physicians, especially when they encounter patients who recently started dabbling with cannabis as a means of placating themselves or because they've heard rumors that it will somehow protect them from COVID-19. The entire assessment plan is slowed down as a result of the confounding variable (onset of a cough), which may arise independently of COVID-19 in cannabis users. Vulnerable populations include smokers and those with COPD or asthma, as they are more likely to require ventilator assistance during the course of COVID-19 therapy.5 Asthmatics and COPD patients are prone to bronchospasms because of sensitive airways.

COVID-19 safety protocols for cannabis users

Because of increased risk of respiratory morbidity, clinicians advise that consumption of recreational cannabinoids be scaled back during the course of the pandemic. In light of conflicting news from several media outlets regarding the efficacy of cannabis intake with respect to COVID-19, preexisting users might unwittingly increase their consumption as a preemptive measure against being exposed to the infection. To prevent transmission among users, clinicians should discourage patients from sharing joints. This recommendation is thematically consistent with general precautionary measures about the dangers of sharing utensils, drinking cups/glasses, and so on, amid the pandemic.

Despite promising preliminary research results, CBD cannot be wholeheartedly recommended at this time; patients already on medically administered cannabinoids are urged to discuss the risk-benefit ratio with their respective health care clinicians. Cannabinoid therapies present a massive opportunity from the perspective of immunomodulation, especially when considering the prevalence of drug use. However, to improve clinical guidelines with respect to COVID-19 outcomes, it would be prudent to increase the overall volume of preclinical knowledge by gathering retrospective data (from case-control designs) and randomized prospective trials.

A more comprehensive list of advice from physicians concerning casual or chronic cannabis users may also include: adopting a dedicated delivery or dispensing system for cannabis products, making considerations for decontamination (i.e., disinfecting mouthpieces), ensuring cleansing precautions are maintained (washing thoroughly before and after use or procurement), switching to inhalation alternates (e.g., tinctures, edibles, and/or oils) to decrease further irritation to the lungs. For bong users, it is recommended that they apply rubbing alcohol to clean their device followed with a minute of air-drying.6


The literature from preclinical studies appears to largely favor the use of CBD, but there remains an element of uncertainty with respect to implementing cannabinoids for the treatment of coronavirus.

COVID-19 cannabinoid intervention is a hot topic with renewed interest from the industry and the public at large, but viral-focused therapies remain a relatively underused area worth exploring with case-control designs and randomized prospective trials. As cannabis legalization is picking up momentum across five additional states, the time is ripe to systematically investigate the therapeutic applications of the drug beyond merely preclinical data. Aside from educational reform initiatives, clinicians might proactively launch a platform that integrates telemedicine as well as digital apps, directly linking the patient to the clinician and monitoring the efficacy of program initiatives in real time.

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