Atovaquone Inhibits Arbovirus Replication through the Depletion of Intracellular Nucleotides

J Virol. 2019 May 15;93(11):e00389-19. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00389-19. Print 2019 Jun 1.


Arthropod-borne viruses represent a significant public health threat worldwide, yet there are few antiviral therapies or prophylaxes targeting these pathogens. In particular, the development of novel antivirals for high-risk populations such as pregnant women is essential to prevent devastating disease such as that which was experienced with the recent outbreak of Zika virus (ZIKV) in the Americas. One potential avenue to identify new and pregnancy-acceptable antiviral compounds is to repurpose well-known and widely used FDA-approved drugs. In this study, we addressed the antiviral role of atovaquone, an FDA Pregnancy Category C drug and pyrimidine biosynthesis inhibitor used for the prevention and treatment of parasitic infections. We found that atovaquone was able to inhibit ZIKV and chikungunya virus virion production in human cells and that this antiviral effect occurred early during infection at the initial steps of viral RNA replication. Moreover, we were able to complement viral replication and virion production with the addition of exogenous pyrimidine nucleosides, indicating that atovaquone functions through the inhibition of the pyrimidine biosynthesis pathway to inhibit viral replication. Finally, using an ex vivo human placental tissue model, we found that atovaquone could limit ZIKV infection in a dose-dependent manner, providing evidence that atovaquone may function as an antiviral in humans. Taken together, these studies suggest that atovaquone could be a broad-spectrum antiviral drug and a potential attractive candidate for the prophylaxis or treatment of arbovirus infection in vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.IMPORTANCE The ability to protect vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children from Zika virus and other arbovirus infections is essential to preventing the devastating complications induced by these viruses. One class of antiviral therapies may lie in known pregnancy-acceptable drugs that have the potential to mitigate arbovirus infections and disease, yet this has not been explored in detail. In this study, we show that the common antiparasitic drug atovaquone inhibits arbovirus replication through intracellular nucleotide depletion and can impair ZIKV infection in an ex vivo human placental explant model. Our study provides a novel function for atovaquone and highlights that the rediscovery of pregnancy-acceptable drugs with potential antiviral effects can be the key to better addressing the immediate need for treating viral infections and preventing potential birth complications and future disease.

Keywords: Zika; antiviral; arbovirus; atovaquone; pregnancy.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology
  • Arboviruses / drug effects*
  • Arboviruses / metabolism
  • Atovaquone / metabolism
  • Atovaquone / pharmacology*
  • Cell Line
  • Chikungunya Fever / virology
  • Chikungunya virus / genetics
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Female
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Placenta
  • Pregnancy
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Pyrimidines / biosynthesis
  • Vero Cells
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / metabolism
  • Virion / metabolism
  • Virus Internalization / drug effects
  • Virus Replication / drug effects*
  • Zika Virus / genetics
  • Zika Virus Infection / virology


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides
  • Pyrimidines
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • pyrimidine
  • Atovaquone