The anti-HIV drug nelfinavir mesylate (Viracept) is a potent inhibitor of cell fusion caused by the SARSCoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein warranting further evaluation as an antiviral against COVID-19 infections

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Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS CoV-2) is the causative agent of the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Coronaviruses enter cells via fusion of the viral envelope with the plasma membrane and/or via fusion of the viral envelope with endosomal membranes after virion endocytosis. The spike (S) glycoprotein is a major determinant of virus infectivity. Herein, we show that the transient expression of the SARS CoV-2 S glycoprotein in Vero cells caused extensive cell fusion (formation of syncytia) in comparison to limited cell fusion caused by the SARS S glycoprotein. Both S glycoproteins were detected intracellularly and on transfected Vero cell surfaces. These results are in agreement with published pathology observations of extensive syncytia formation in lung tissues of patients with COVID-19. These results suggest that SARS CoV-2 is able to spread from cell-to-cell much more efficiently than SARS effectively avoiding extracellular neutralizing antibodies. A systematic screening of several drugs including cardiac glycosides and kinase inhibitors and inhibitors of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) entry revealed that only the FDA-approved HIV protease inhibitor, nelfinavir mesylate (Viracept) drastically inhibited S-n- and S-o-mediated cell fusion with complete inhibition at a 10-μM concentration. In-silico docking experiments suggested the possibility that nelfinavir may bind inside the S trimer structure, proximal to the S2 amino terminus directly inhibiting S-n- and S-o-mediated membrane fusion. Also, it is possible that nelfinavir may act to inhibit S proteolytic processing within cells. These results warrant further investigations of the potential of nelfinavir mesylate to inhibit virus spread at early times after SARS CoV-2 symptoms appear.

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Journal of medical virology

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