N-Acetylcysteine: A potential therapeutic agent for SARS-CoV-2

Med Hypotheses. 2020 Oct:143:109862. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2020.109862. Epub 2020 May 30.


COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), continues to spread across the globe. Predisposing factors such as age, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and lowered immune function increase the risk of disease severity. T cell exhaustion, high viral load, and high levels of TNF-ɑ, IL1β, IL6, IL10 have been associated with severe SARS-CoV-2. Cytokine and antigen overstimulation are potentially responsible for poor humoral response to the virus. Lower cellular redox status, which leads to pro-inflammatory states mediated by TNF-ɑ is also potentially implicated. In vivo, in vitro, and human clinical trials have demonstrated N-acetylcysteine (NAC) as an effective method of improving redox status, especially when under oxidative stress. In human clinical trials, NAC has been used to replenish glutathione stores and increase the proliferative response of T cells. NAC has also been shown to inhibit the NLRP3 inflammasome pathway (IL1β and IL18) in vitro, and decrease plasma TNF-ɑ in human clinical trials. Mediation of the viral load could occur through NAC's ability to increase cellular redox status via maximizing the rate limiting step of glutathione synthesis, and thereby potentially decreasing the effects of virally induced oxidative stress and cell death. We hypothesize that NAC could act as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of COVID-19 through a variety of potential mechanisms, including increasing glutathione, improving T cell response, and modulating inflammation. In this article, we present evidence to support the use of NAC as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; Coronavirus; Glutathione; N-acetylcysteine; NAC; NLRP3; Oxidative stress; Redox potential; Redox status; SARS-COV-2; T Cell Exhaustion; TNF-ɑ.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / therapeutic use*
  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Drug Treatment
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Coronavirus Infections / drug therapy*
  • Free Radicals
  • Glutathione
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • NLR Family, Pyrin Domain-Containing 3 Protein / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / drug therapy*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes / virology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism
  • Viral Load


  • Free Radicals
  • NLR Family, Pyrin Domain-Containing 3 Protein
  • NLRP3 protein, human
  • TNF protein, human
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Glutathione
  • Acetylcysteine