The Week That Wasn't in COVID-19: Cannabis, Hamster Masks, Another 'Cure'

Ellie Kincaid


May 22, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

This week in COVID-19 news, scientists suggested that cannabis could play a role in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection, hamsters provided evidence that masks can curtail viral transmission, and a biotech company claimed it had discovered a "cure." But you didn't see these headlines on Medscape Medical News. Here's why.

Cannabis as Prevention

Particular strains of cannabis that are high in cannabidiol decrease cells' expression of the gene for the ACE2 receptor that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells, researchers from medical cannabis companies report in a preprint that has not been peer reviewed. The scientists acknowledge "our most effective extracts require further large-scale validation," but propose that the strains they identified could be developed into preventive mouthwash and gargling products.

Of course it would be nice if we could all gargle cannabis mouthwash to protect ourselves from COVID-19. But these experiments ― in cell models, not even animals, and that do not directly test whether the cannabis strains prevent SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells ― leave that possibility as little more than a pipe dream. We didn't think our busy readers needed to bother with it.

Masks Cut Hamster Infections

In what sounds like a unique study, scientists at the University of Hong Kong put surgical masks between the cages of some hamsters that were infected with SARS-CoV-2 and some hamsters that weren't infected. They then compared the infection rates in the healthy hamsters with mask protection to the infection rates for hamsters in a similar setup that didn’t have a surgical mask between the cages.

Within a week, two thirds of the previously healthy hamsters in the cages that did not have a mask partition had become infected. In a setup in which a mask was placed closer to the healthy hamsters ― meant to simulate an uninfected person wearing a mask ― the researchers found that one third of the healthy hamsters had become infected. In a setup in which the mask partition was closer to the infected hamsters, simulating an infected person wearing a mask, the healthy animals' infection rate was one sixth, according to a university press release.

It might be difficult to get an institutional review board to approve a human study in which participants risk infection with SARS-CoV-2 to prove whether or not surgical masks cut viral transmission, so this sort of animal simulation study is not without value. But this research doesn't appear to have been peer reviewed yet, and it's still a reach to apply it to people, so we didn't think it was a high priority for clinicians.

Another "Cure"

California-based biotech company Sorrento Therapeutics discovered an antibody that is a "cure" for COVID-19, the company's CEO told Fox News in what the network branded as an "exclusive." But the data the company cited were from an in vitro experiment, and the antibody has not been tested in animal models, much less clinical trials. Endpoints News notes that the company has something of a reputation for putting out press releases to boost its stock price.

If you're a regular reader of The Week That Wasn't, you know this isn't the first time that we've decided not to cover an experimental drug that's been hyped as a cure for COVID-19 or a similar breakthrough. As we've written, "Although a cure or any new treatment to help physicians combat COVID-19 would be wonderful, we look for more evidence, some methodological details, and ideally some kind of peer review before we will consider a treatment or 'candidate cure' worthy of your time during a real pandemic."

Ellie Kincaid is Medscape's associate managing editor. She has previously written about healthcare for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and Nature Medicine. She can be reached at or @ellie_kincaid on Twitter.

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