Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent for COVID-19, is a novel human betacoronavirus that is rapidly spreading worldwide. The outbreak currently includes over 3.7 million cases and 260,000 fatalities. As a betacoronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 encodes for a papain-like protease (PLpro) that is likely responsible for cleavage of the coronavirus (CoV) viral polypeptide. The PLpro is also responsible for suppression of host innate immune responses by virtue of its ability to reverse host ubiquitination and ISGylation events. Here, the biochemical activity of SARS-CoV-2 PLpro against ubiquitin (Ub) and interferon-stimulated gene product 15 (ISG15) substrates is evaluated, revealing that the protease has a marked reduction in its ability to process K48 linked Ub substrates compared to its counterpart in SARS-CoV. Additionally, its substrate activity more closely mirrors that of the PLpro from the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus and prefers ISG15s from certain species including humans. Additionally, naphthalene based PLpro inhibitors are shown to be effective at halting SARS-CoV-2 PLpro activity as well as SARS-CoV-2 replication.
Keywords: COVID-19; ISG5; PLpro; coronavirus; severe acute respiratory syndrome 2; ubiquitin.