Oregano Oil and Its Principal Component, Carvacrol, Inhibit HIV-1 Fusion into Target Cells

J Virol. 2020 Jul 16;94(15):e00147-20. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00147-20. Print 2020 Jul 16.


Oregano essential oil has long been known for its health-promoting benefits. Here, we report its activity against viral replication. Oregano oil was found to specifically inhibit lentiviruses, such as human and simian immunodeficiency viruses (HIV and SIV), irrespective of virus tropism, but not hepatitis C virus, adenovirus 5 (ADV5), Zika virus, and influenza (H1N1) virus. Oregano oil's most abundant components, carvacrol and its isomer, thymol, were shown to block virus-target cell fusion while not perturbing other stages of the virus life cycle. We detected changes in virus particle density, suggesting that cholesterol depletion from the HIV-1 envelope membrane reduces virus entry. Furthermore, infection was rescued by adding exogenous cholesterol. The evolution of viral resistance to carvacrol supported this mechanism of action with the identification of mutations in the viral gp41 fusion protein that counteracted cholesterol depletion. In addition, resistance to carvacrol emerged later than typically observed for other clinically used drugs, strengthening its antiviral potential. Structure-activity relationship studies revealed key motifs of carvacrol and thymol required for HIV neutralization and identified previously unknown active analogs. Carvacrol was also shown to additively cooperate with antiretroviral therapy. In sum, oregano oil and improved carvacrol and thymol analogs could be considered to supplement current HIV therapeutics.IMPORTANCE Oregano essential oil has multiple benefits in traditional medicine, cosmetics, and food industries. Carvacrol and its analog, thymol, are well-described components of oregano oil. Here, we show that these compounds inhibit HIV-target cell fusion independently of viral tropism. Our results suggest that carvacrol and thymol alter the cholesterol content of the viral membrane, blocking HIV-1 entry into the target cell. Resistance to carvacrol has selected for viruses with mutations in the viral envelope glycoprotein, gp41. This protein is known for its interaction with cholesterol present in membrane lipid rafts. Together, these results demonstrate the potential of therapies targeting the viral envelope membrane, and oregano oil is a safe supplement to antiretrovirals, potentially delaying disease progression and resistance development.

Keywords: carvacrol; cholesterol depletion; entry inhibition; human immunodeficiency virus; oregano oil; thymol; viral membrane.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cholesterol / genetics
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Cymenes / chemistry
  • Cymenes / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance, Viral
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / genetics
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / metabolism*
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections / genetics
  • HIV Infections / metabolism
  • HIV-1 / genetics
  • HIV-1 / metabolism*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Mutation
  • Origanum / chemistry*
  • Plant Oils / chemistry
  • Plant Oils / pharmacology*
  • Virus Internalization / drug effects*


  • Cymenes
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41
  • Plant Oils
  • gp41 protein, Human immunodeficiency virus 1
  • Cholesterol
  • carvacrol