Cannabidiol Inhibits SARS-CoV-2 Replication & Promotes The Host Innate Immune Response

Cannabidiol from the cannabis plant has potential to prevent and inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is responsible for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a pandemic that has overtaken the world during the past year. SARS-CoV-2, related to severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV), is the seventh species of coronavirus known to infect people. These coronaviruses, which include SARS-CoV, 229E, NL63, OC43, HKU1, and MERS-CoV cause a range of symptoms from the common cold to more severe pathologies (1). Despite recent vaccine availability, SARS-CoV-2 is still spreading rapidly (2), highlighting the need for alternative treatments, especially for populations with limited access to vaccines. To date, few therapies have been identified that block SARS-CoV-2 replication and viral production.

SARS-CoV-2 is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA (+ssRNA) enveloped virus composed of a lipid bilayer and four structural proteins that drive viral particle formation. The spike (S), membrane (M), and envelope (E) are integral proteins of the virus membrane and serve to drive virion budding, while also recruiting the nucleocapsid (N) protein and the viral genomic RNA into nascent virions. Like SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2 primarily enters human cells by the binding of the viral S protein to the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor (3–5), after which the S protein undergoes proteolysis by transmembrane protease, serine 2 (TMPRSS2) or other proteases into two non-covalently bound peptides (S1, S2) that facilitate viral entry into the host cell. The N-terminal S1 binds the ACE2 receptor, and the C-terminal S2 mediates viral-cell membrane fusion following proteolytic cleavage by TMRSS2 or other proteases. Depending upon the cell type, viral entry can also occur after ACE2 binding, independent of proteolytic cleavage (6–8). Following cell entry, the SARS-CoV-2 genome is translated into two large polypeptides that are cleaved by two viral proteases, MPro and PLPro (9, 10), to produce 15 proteins, in addition to the synthesis of subgenomic RNAs that encode another 10 accessory proteins plus the 4 structural proteins. These proteins enable viral replication, assembly, and budding. In an effort to suppress infection by the SARS-CoV-2 beta-coronavirus as well as other evolving pathogenic viruses, we tested the antiviral potential of a number of small molecules that target host stress response pathways.

One potential regulator of the host stress and antiviral inflammatory responses is cannabidiol (CBD), a member of the cannabinoid class of natural products. CBD is produced by Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae; marijuana/hemp). Hemp refers to cannabis plants or materials derived thereof that contain 0.3% or less of the psychotropic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and typically have relatively high CBD content. By contrast, marijuana refers to C. sativa materials with more than 0.3% THC by dry weight. THC acts through binding to the cannabinoid receptor, and CBD potentiates this interaction. Despite numerous studies and many typically unsubstantiated claims related to CBD-containing products, the biology of CBD itself is unclear and specific targets are mostly unknown. However, an oral solution of CBD is an FDA-approved drug, largely for the treatment of epilepsy. Thus, CBD has drug status, is viable as a therapeutic, and cannot be marketed as a dietary supplement in the United States. Although limited, some studies have reported that certain cannabinoids have antiviral effects against hepatitis C virus (HCV) and other viruses.

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