There is evidence that cannabis can reduce viral load in HIV, can it help COVID-19 patients?
At the time of writing, there were 69, 287 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1670 deaths. With the rapid escalation of the outbreak, these numbers will surely be outdated by the time of publication. With several regions heading into states of emergencies, including quarantine, nervous travelers are looking for anti viral herbs to reduce the chance of infection. Patients have asked us: What about cannabis?
There have been rumors about successful treatments for coronavirus, but no confirmations. Several Chinese news stations reported on something promising coming from Zhejiang University. And multiple nations are cooperatively working on a vaccine.
In fact, WHO has identified that there are currently four vaccines in development. Soumya Swaminathan (WHO) spoke at the February 12th (2020), conference saying, “It’s likely that there will be one or two that will go into human trials in the next three to four months. However, it would take at least twelve to eighteen months for a vaccine to become available for use.”
Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) is tracking the details of more than eighty different treatment trials. These range from HIV pharmaceuticals to Ebola drugs to anti viral herbs found in ancient Chinese medicine. Does cannabis fall into any of these possibilities?
First, let’s be clear – nobody is claiming cannabis cures coronavirus. This emerging virus remains a mystery to the top minds of science. Nor is it likely that smoking the herb will keep you safe from infection. Instead, the following is a discussion on the anti viral properties of cannabis and potential health considerations for cannabis patients. It is inspired by questions from our own patients.
The Anti Viral Properties of Cannabis
The study entitled Potential of Cannabidiol for the Treatment of Viral Hepatitis was published in 2017 in the Journal of Pharmacognosy Research. Scientists explored the effects of cannabis for both viral hepatitis B and C. 
Unlike coronavirus, which attacks the respiratory system, all hepatitis viruses target the liver. At the time of the publication, the authors of this study could not find a substantial body of peer-reviewed investigation into the plant’s anti viral properties. As the authors of this paper point out, most of the research into cannabis against viruses examined its benefits for reducing the symptoms of the disease, not the changing the course of viral infection.
With few studies specifically looking at the plant’s anti viral qualities, the team investigated this in vitro with cannabidiol (CBD). In the laboratory, they discovered CBD was successful in limiting the replication of the Hepatitis C virus, but didn’t seem to have the same impact on the B variety. Although, they noted CBD did affect the cells which were used to culture the hepatitis C virus. Further studies will delve deeper into the potential anti viral abilities of CBD against hepatitis, and potentially other viruses.
Cannabis and the HIV Connection
Past research has explored the positive impact of cannabis use among patients with HIV. In a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, the authors determined a better HIV DNA decay for HIV patients using cannabis as a conjunctive therapy. Cannabis consumption was alongside pharmaceutical anti-retroviral treatment. One speculation is that cannabis significantly reduces systemic inflammation, which may improve the body’s ability to fight back.
Patients living with HIV/AIDS have long used cannabis to alleviate side effects of anti-retroviral therapy, including fever, nausea, and vomiting. A study on monkeys, published in AIDS Research and Human Retrovirus (2011), found that THC reduced viral loads in plasma. This ultimately may increase the lifespan of AIDS patients.
At this time, there are two clinical trials to determine whether HIV pharmaceuticals (and Ebola drugs) can help treat COVID-19 patients. On February 12th, 2019, WHO representative, Marie-Paule Kieny, spoke at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, identifying the combination of Iopinavir and Ritonavir helpful for “quite a number” of patients with coronavirus.
But, Should You Smoke Cannabis With a Respiratory Infection?
If you are suffering from the symptoms of coronavirus, first seek medical attention. Take precautions to limit the exposure to others around you by practicing social isolation, washing hands frequently, and wearing a proper respiratory mask. It is important to follow the guidelines set out by local health authorities, as in some locales, potential patients have been instructed not to show up at the hospital, but to call for pick up instead. This is to limit transmission to other people.
Coronavirus is but one type of viral infection that attacks the lungs. Seasonal flu will do the same, as will certain variations of the common cold. If you do have a viral respiratory infection, corona-or-otherwise, would smoking cannabis help or hinder your recovery?
While science suggests that cannabis is a probable candidate in the category of potent anti viral herbs, smoke is not the best method of consumption. Unfortunately, smoking any substance brings unwanted particulate matter into the lungs, and that could lower your chance of recovery. The very last thing you want to do is incite additional inflammation in infected lung tissue
As summarized by McMaster University, the current literature suggests acute treatment via smoking may relax bronchial muscles, but chronic administration will constrict them. In layperson terms, this means smoking cannabis over the long term produces a higher risk of adverse respiratory outcomes. For new consumers naive to smoking, however, the hot smoke can cause uncontrolled coughing and lung irritation.
It would be far better to use a cannabis inhaler as this brings medicine directly to the lungs without the additional irritation of smoke. Alternatively, cannabis oil, taken sublingually, has a high efficacy. This is accomplished because sublingual administration reduces the loss of cannabinoids as the medicine travels through the digestive tract.
So, Can Cannabis Prevent or Treat Coronavirus?
There is, unfortunately, no evidence that cannabis or any other of the anti viral herbs can stop or slow the progress of COVID-19. On the other hand, if you are already a cannabis patient, there are currently no contra-indications for cannabis and anti viral treatments. You can continue to take your medicine. And we can keep hoping that science will uncover previously unknown anti viral properties of cannabis.
Chaillon, A., Nakazawa, M., Anderson, C., Christensen-Quick, A., Ellis, R. J., Franklin, D., … Gianella, S. (2019). Effect of Cannabis Use on Human Immunodeficiency Virus DNA During Suppressive Antiretroviral Therapy. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 70(1), 140–143. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciz387
Lowe, H. I., Toyang, N. J., & McLaughlin, W. (2017). Potential of Cannabidiol for the Treatment of Viral Hepatitis. Pharmacognosy research, 9(1), 116–118. doi:10.4103/0974-8490.199780
Molina, P.E., Winsaur, P., et al (2011). Cannabinoid Administration Attenuates the Progression of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, 27 (6), doi: 10.1089/aid.2010.0218.