A little more than a hundred years ago, the world faced a pandemic similar to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) that we confront today. According to The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), from 1918—1919, about 500 million people became infected with the H1N1 virus, which claimed the lives of 675,000 Americans and approximately 50 million worldwide. As of April 19, 2020, coronavirus has infected more than 2.4 million and killed 165,000 people.
Pandemics throughout history make people frantic for a cure, and snake oil salesmen have been hustling “cures” for millennia. During the 1918 pandemic, substances touted as such run the gamut: Vick’s VapoRub, Indian Herbs, and Miller’s Antiseptic Oil among them.
Today is no different, and the proclivity to never let a good crisis go to waste thrives. Recently, a Southern California-based doctor was charged with fraud for selling COVID-19 “treatment packs” for a hefty price. Others looking to cash in on COVID fears are right-wing radio host Alex Jones, hawking COVID-curing gargle and toothpaste from his InfoWars.com website.
An air purifier company has claimed that their filters can remove coronaviruses from the air, and even others posit exposing contaminated surfaces to ultraviolet light, gargling warm salt water and taking hefty doses of Vitamins C and D. And what about all the claims in cannabis?
The ameliorative effects of CBD came into focus after CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta featured a young Charlotte Figi in the 2013 documentary Weed. Figi, who had an intractable form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome, practically eliminated her seizures by using a high-CBD cannabis strain produced by Colorado Springs growers who eventually named the strain after her, Charlotte’s Web. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would approve Epilodilex, a CBD product aimed to reduce seizures from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, in 2018.
Snake oil and the cannabis industry
Even the cannabis industry has some COVID-cure bandwagon hoppers, including retired NFL player and CBD evangelist Kyle Turley. In late March, Turley’s CBD company NeuroXPF received an FDA letter of warning for posting misinformation on their website and social media messages such as, “CBD can help keep your immune system at the top of its game … We want everyone to take CBD and take advantage of its potential to help prepare your body to fight a coronavirus infection.”
While Turley’s CBD company’s social’s claim does not explicitly say that CBD can cure coronavirus, the word choice strongly suggests that taking CBD can protect you from infection. To make matters worse, Turley explicitly said CBD could cure and prevent coronavirus on his personal Twitter account. But is that true? Could an immune system enhanced by CBD keep you from getting coronavirus?
Martin A. Lee is the co-founder and director of Project CBD, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote and publicize research covering the medicinal uses of CBD and other cannabis compounds. “Potential is the keyword here because the research in this area is pre-clinical,” Lee told Weedmaps. “[Covid-19] is a disease that can express itself in different ways, and most people are having relatively mild experiences. But when it does threaten mortality, it does seem likely that what they’re dying from is how their body is reacting to the virus. And they are reacting to the cytokine storm. The immune system goes totally haywire.”
Cytokine storm is a term growing in familiarity as Americans look up their Google searches on how COVID-19 works in the body. According to WebMD, Cytokines are proteins that respond to an infection by triggering inflammation. However, the immune system can overreact to infection and release too many cytokines — ergo the term “cytokine storm” — resulting in hyper-inflammation, which can be deadly.
What do the research and data say?
A study led by researchers at Mississippi State found in an in vitro setting using human and mouse cells that CBD” induced suppression of cytokine production.” However, it’s important to note that no study directly addresses CBD, cytokines, and COVID-19. Lee acknowledges that the gap between anecdotes and informal research about CBD’s effectiveness — some use CBD to self-treat autoimmune inflammatory conditions like multiple sclerosis — is conflicting.
Mary Biles wrote in Project CBD, “A new wave of research and mounting anecdotal evidence points toward cannabinoids having an adaptive, immunomodulating effect, rather than just suppressing immune activity.” In other words, it’s possible that cannabinoids like CBD may keep inflammation at bay when healthy, but increase inflammation when getting sick
But Lee reiterates that there is simply not enough evidence about cannabis and COVID-19 to draw any conclusions. “I think there’s enough evidence, given what we know about CBD, cannabis, and THC to suggest medical scientists should explore this [CBD] as a treatment for cytokine storm. To the extent of knowing if that would work, it’s pure speculation,” he added.
Like Kyle Turley, those who have experienced the ameliorative effects of CBD firsthand often evangelize about the compound. However, how CBD works in partnership with the immune system lacks substantive, clinical research, leading people to rely heavily on anecdotal evidence. Researchers know even less about COVID-19, but what they do know is that cytokine storms likely contribute to COVID’s lethality.
Claims like Turley’s — in addition to being dangerously misleading — reflect poorly on the CBD industry at large, especially for companies attempting to run legitimate businesses in a mostly unregulated market.
How some companies are doing it right
Degelis “Dege” Tufts and Kymberly “KymB” Byrnes are the co-founders of Brooklyn, New York-based CBD and cannabis lifestyle company Tribe Tokes. Since COVID erupted, the ladies at Tribe say they have noticed an uptick in sales, but not because they’ve been peddling a cure. “In this era of legalization, we fought so hard to get legitimacy around [CBD] use, and so hard to fight stigma against the plant, making claims [about CBD] can unravel the legitimacy,” says Tufts. “We’re not here to make a profit off a somewhat vulnerable consumer right now.”
The team at Tribe is keenly aware of what they can and cannot say about CBD on their labels, website, and social media. “There are pretty clear guidelines for CBD brands on what they can and can’t do,” Tufts explained. “We are not supposed to make claims about specific diseases. You can’t go near it, because the studies aren’t there. It’s really a red flag if brands are citing specific diseases, and coronavirus would fall under that umbrella.”
Byrnes notes that there have been evangelists making healing claims about substances for eons, and CBD is no different. “But the most important thing for companies to do is have integrity. Our responsibility right now as a leader in CBD is to educate and elevate. We don’t have enough studies on corona and cannabis to understand how those two would have a relationship,” she added.
Many consumers have been rethinking their cannabis consumption during the pandemic, especially those who smoke or vape. Brynes and Tufts have noticed an increase in sales, especially from consumers looking to soothe feelings of anxiety during a time of increasing uncertainty, while Lee wonders if it’s safe to use CBD at all, even for consumers who have no symptoms and may be asymptomatic, given that we do not have a full understanding of how the compound may influence the immune system. “Would taking cannabis help [with Covid]? Would it be a good idea to consume CBD? Maybe not? We don’t have any data either way.”
Featured illustration by autumn/Shutterstock