Already down when the coronavirus pandemic kicked all markets, a few cannabis stocks enjoyed rallies Friday — gains connected, it would seem, to the coronavirus pandemic.
Colorado’s CBD giant Charlotte’s Web, named for pediatric cannabis patient Charlotte Figi, who died last month of complications from the coronavirus, was up 24 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange. But the big gain was on NASDAQ, where shares in Canadian firm Sundial spiked 50 percent—a jump, to $0.83 a share, that’s nothing close to wiping out last year’s losses, but nonetheless a very big rally in context.
And a rally “vaguely” timed, as MarketWatch reporter Max Cherney observed, with the New York Post’s publication Thursday of its take on the big story that had gone viral on Facebook earlier that month, and was later flagged as fake news: the claim, first made in a preclinical paper published in April, by Canadian scientists that certain high CBD strains of “cannabis could prevent and treat coronavirus.”
Cannabis and COVID together strikes a nerve, already: since the beginning of the pandemic, unscrupulous cannabis companies have been claiming, without any data, that their products might manage COVID symptoms or even act as a preventative. But this wasn’t that, as researchers at the University of Lethbridge explained in interviews with the Calgary Herald and CTV, recycled by the Post.
In experiments with 3D human cell cultures mimicking various diseases, certain high CBD cannabis strains—developed by the researchers labs, in no relation to the cannabis available in legal and recreational markets in Canada or the US—demonstrated abilities to shut down coronavirus’s favorite “pathway: a receptor called ACE2.
Rife in lung cells but also present in the mouth and gut, ACE2 regulates the virus’s ability to enter cells and replicate. One of the Lethbridge CBD strains downregulated the ACE2 receptor in certain 3D cells by as much as 73 percent, according to Lethbridge biological scientist and study lead author Igor Kovalchuk. This is a reason why the ACE2 receptor, and turning it off, is the target of pharmaceutical interventions like experimental novel coronavirus vaccines—and this is why a consumer product that contains one of the Lethbridge-grown cannabis strains might be a useful supplemental therapy for COVID-19 patients. Perhaps in a mouthwash, the preclinical paper suggested.
None of this means cannabis is a COVID-19 cure, or a COVID-19 prevention—just, maybe, a COVID-19 treatment. That didn’t stop certain media outlets, including one weed publication called out by name by The Poynter Institute’s Politifact in a May 18 item, from running items “overstating” the Lethbridge scientists’ findings, as Kovalcuk himself admitted. But the Post got it right.
“It reduces the possibility to get infected. I never said it would prevent or block it entirely,” he said in a telephone interview over the weekend.
“It is a possible treatment,” he added. ‘A treatment is not a cure. When [news reports] say it treats COVID, or can potentially treat COVID, they are absolutely right.”
For Kovalchuk’s research team, the coronavirus pandemic struck at an auspicious time. Kovalchuk runs a company called Pathway Rx. Pathway is a Sundial subsidiary—a fact not mentioned in the Post—and earlier this year, after the company’s fortunes had plummeted from summertime trading of $12 a share to this winter’s sub-$1 nadir, his team’s research was close to getting shut down for lack of money.
When COVID appeared, “I thought, well, it’s a virus, it’s inflammation, there must be something cannabis does,” Kovalchuk recalled. So his team dived back into the models. And since COVID-19 attacks the ACE2 receptor, a receptor his strains seem to block, “the rest is history.”
As for the temporary market gains, “I don’t really care,” Kovalchuk insisted. “I want this to be brought to people. And that can only be done once a clinical trial is done.”
The trick now is to convince an investor—be it a cannabis company or anyone else—to pay for study that involves humans. This will require even more money.
For around $700,000 US, Kovalchuk believes he could enroll several hundred human volunteers — COVID-19 patients willing to supplement their doctor-prescribed regimen with a Pathway Rx cannabis product, to see if their recoveries were quicker or their symptoms less severe than a control group’s. If hospitalization stays, length of illness, and other indicators among the experimental group dropped by 20 percent compared to control, more study and a larger cohort would be required. If it were 50 percent—then maybe we’d have an accepted additional therapy.
For now, the main takeaway is that “cannabis,” meaning the stash in your jar, or the stash available at the dispensary, or the CBD oil flogged online, isn’t going to do anything. Pressed for details about terpene notes or full cannabinoind spectrum information about his special strains, Kovalchuk stayed mum. But he did emphasize that it’s very likely the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, not just the high-CBD/low-THC ratio, that’s finding success inhibiting the ACE2 receptor favored by the coronavirus.
“It’s very important that it’s not just generic CBD,” he added. “You just can’t go anywhere and get CBD [that will work on COVID-19]. That’s why we’re afraid of people just rushing out to start buying it.”
Which, apparently, people have done—and not just CBD, but CBD stocks, too.