USC researchers think THC may be able to treat COVID-19 patients

Researchers study effects of THC on COVID-19

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Researchers at the University of South Carolina think they have found a way to treat COVID-19, and it involves THC -- the ingredient that gets people high when smoking marijuana.

Channel 9 reporter Glenn Counts spoke with those researchers on Wednesday and, to be clear, they said they are not encouraging people to smoke marijuana.

They said one of the issues with the virus is that it can turn your immune system into a double-edge sword -- you want it to respond strongly if you get sick, but in some cases, the immune system goes completely haywire and that can be deadly.

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“It is called a cytokine storm,” said Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, USC’s vice president of research. “That can damage your lungs, as well as all your other organs, and the person will die.”

Nagarkatti said cytokine storms are common among critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“When the immune system is hyper-activated, we don’t have currently any effective medicines, any effective drugs approved by the FDA,” he said.

But Nagarkatti’s team made a discovery that might completely change the game, and it involves marijuana. Specifically, THC -- the psychoactive part which produces a high.

“Mice die within five days -- 100% of the mice die -- but if you treat those mice with THC that is found in the marijuana plant, then we can pretty much cure all of those mice,” Nagarkatti said. “So, how do we get from mice to people? It’s important to remember that THC is already available for physicians to treat cancer patients … so we know the dose from people who are taking it already so we can try those doses that are being tested in other diseases to see whether that can be tolerated by the COVID-19 patients.”

Nagarkatti is offering THC to doctors in South Carolina as a part of a clinical trial to see if it can help their patients.

But he wanted to make it clear that this is not an endorsement for smoking marijuana. While THC appears to calm the immune system -- short-circuiting a potentially deadly overreaction -- the immune-suppressing qualities of marijuana could make someone more vulnerable to catching COVID-19 in the first place.

“Our studies should not be interpreted to suggest that marijuana smoking is good for COVID-19,” Nagarkatti said. “That’s not true.”

In regard to how long it could be before this becomes an approved drug to fight the virus, THC has already been around for years and its side effects are well known, so from that standpoint it already has a leg up. But clinical trials can take months, or even years, so it’s difficult to answer.

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