Science //

Does doing drugs protect you from COVID-19?

Pain management drugs and cannabinoids have been found to protect against infectious diseases such as COVID-19 in recent studies by USyd and Oregon State University.

Art by Amelia Koen

Let’s be honest, university students are no stranger to drugs; hell, you might even be familiar yourself. So prick up your ears and get high on the science — some might even be good for you. 

A study published on 1 March by the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health revealed groundbreaking links between common pain management drugs and the immune system’s vulnerability to infectious diseases such as COVID-19. The researchers conducted an international literature review of pre-existing clinical trials to draw conclusions on available data. 

Though it is known that pain medications interact with the immune system, it has been unclear whether they can play a significant role in the treatment of infectious disease — until now. Studying pharmaceutical opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — such as aspirin, panadol, ibuprofen — researchers were able to draw new conclusions about how pain medication may impact the outcomes of infectious diseases. 

Significantly, the review found that, in vitro, indomethacin (a NSAID painkiller) had an antiviral effect in response to COVID-19 in the body. The anti-inflammatory medicine succeeded in reducing the replication of COVID-19 viral particles in the body. Despite the exciting potential implications of this finding, its clinical success must be investigated and researched in large trials. 

Conversely, other NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and aspirin were found to minimise the size of immune responses post-vaccination, when taken for symptoms such as headaches or fever after receiving a jab. This is worrying, as the body’s immune response post-vaccination is critical to the effectiveness of the immunity it provides you. 

Further, the review found that opioid analgesics — such as oxycodone and fentanyl — are linked to immunosuppression and thereby increase the risk of infection with any infectious disease. Hence, anaesthetic opiate drugs, including morphine, suppress the body’s innate immunity: the immune system you’re born with. However, they were also found to have varying effects on adaptive immunity: the immunity acquired throughout your life. In post-surgery settings, morphine can increase the risk of infection by suppressing crucial cells within the innate immune system, thus pointing to the need for anaesthetic medicines which do not compromise the immune system. 

As with much of the most compelling research, the findings of the paper were unplanned and unexpected. Published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, the review commenced in the early months of the pandemic initially in response to mass-hoarding of paracetamol.

The review’s lead author, Dr Christina Abdel-Shaheed of USyd’s School of Public Health, said: “We decided to study painkillers and fever medications generally and were amazed by what we found.”

“In 14 years of studying pain, this is the most important research I have been involved in.” 

With major clinical implications to better manage the treatment of infectious diseases, as well as clinical and surgical applications, the review notes that further large-scale research and clinical trials are required. 

A tangential study on cannabis out of Oregon State University found that certain cannabinoids can block cellular entry of COVID-19 in the body.

Now, before you reach for a bong — this isn’t the same chemical compound as recreational marijuana. The cannabinoids used in this research paper do not contain THC, the psychoactive component of the drug, but rather are isolated CBD acids. Specifically, CBGA and CBDA. 

According to the study published in January, in the Journal of Natural Products, these cannabinoids bind to the spike protein of COVID-19 viral cells. The compound that this adjoining process forms prevents the virus from entering the body’s cells, and therefore prevents the development of the infection.

Led out of Oregon State’s Global Hemp Innovation Center (where I know you wish you worked), the paper’s findings present potential new mechanisms to treat COVID-19.

The lead researcher, Richard van Breemen, said that these cannabis extracts “have a good safety profile in humans” — and in the article’s abstract, states that they “have the potential to prevent as well as treat infection by SARS-CoV-2”. 

The identification of relevant scientific reports for the review was conducted through an electronic search of health research databases, including MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CENTRAL and the Cochrane library.