Structure of Mpro from SARS-CoV-2 and discovery of its inhibitors

Nature. 2020 Jun;582(7811):289-293. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2223-y. Epub 2020 Apr 9.


A new coronavirus, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is the aetiological agent responsible for the 2019-2020 viral pneumonia outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)1-4. Currently, there are no targeted therapeutic agents for the treatment of this disease, and effective treatment options remain very limited. Here we describe the results of a programme that aimed to rapidly discover lead compounds for clinical use, by combining structure-assisted drug design, virtual drug screening and high-throughput screening. This programme focused on identifying drug leads that target main protease (Mpro) of SARS-CoV-2: Mpro is a key enzyme of coronaviruses and has a pivotal role in mediating viral replication and transcription, making it an attractive drug target for SARS-CoV-25,6. We identified a mechanism-based inhibitor (N3) by computer-aided drug design, and then determined the crystal structure of Mpro of SARS-CoV-2 in complex with this compound. Through a combination of structure-based virtual and high-throughput screening, we assayed more than 10,000 compounds-including approved drugs, drug candidates in clinical trials and other pharmacologically active compounds-as inhibitors of Mpro. Six of these compounds inhibited Mpro, showing half-maximal inhibitory concentration values that ranged from 0.67 to 21.4 μM. One of these compounds (ebselen) also exhibited promising antiviral activity in cell-based assays. Our results demonstrate the efficacy of our screening strategy, which can lead to the rapid discovery of drug leads with clinical potential in response to new infectious diseases for which no specific drugs or vaccines are available.

MeSH terms

  • Antiviral Agents / chemistry
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology
  • Betacoronavirus / chemistry*
  • Betacoronavirus / drug effects
  • COVID-19
  • Cells, Cultured / virology
  • Coronavirus 3C Proteases
  • Coronavirus Infections / enzymology
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases / chemistry*
  • Drug Design
  • Drug Discovery / methods*
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / enzymology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • Protease Inhibitors / chemistry*
  • Protease Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / chemistry*


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases
  • Coronavirus 3C Proteases