Background: Coronaviruses (CoVs) were long thought to only cause mild respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms in humans but outbreaks of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)-CoV, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-CoV-1, and the recently identified SARS-CoV-2 have cemented their zoonotic potential and their capacity to cause serious morbidity and mortality, with case fatality rates ranging from 4 to 35%. Currently, no specific prophylaxis or treatment is available for CoV infections. Therefore we investigated the virucidal and antiviral potential of Echinacea purpurea (Echinaforce®) against human coronavirus (HCoV) 229E, highly pathogenic MERS- and SARS-CoVs, as well as the newly identified SARS-CoV-2, in vitro.
Methods: To evaluate the antiviral potential of the extract, we pre-treated virus particles and cells and evaluated remaining infectivity by limited dilution. Furthermore, we exposed cells to the extract after infection to further evaluate its potential as a prophylaxis and treatment against coronaviruses. We also determined the protective effect of Echinaforce® in re-constituted nasal epithelium.
Results: In the current study, we found that HCoV-229E was irreversibly inactivated when exposed to Echinaforce® at 3.2 μg/ml IC50. Pre-treatment of cell lines, however, did not inhibit infection with HCoV-229E and post-infection treatment had only a marginal effect on virus propagation at 50 μg/ml. However, we did observe a protective effect in an organotypic respiratory cell culture system by exposing pre-treated respiratory epithelium to droplets of HCoV-229E, imitating a natural infection. The observed virucidal activity of Echinaforce® was not restricted to common cold coronaviruses, as both SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoVs were inactivated at comparable concentrations. Finally, the causative agent of COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 was also inactivated upon treatment with 50μg/ml Echinaforce®.
Conclusions: These results show that Echinaforce® is virucidal against HCoV-229E, upon direct contact and in an organotypic cell culture model. Furthermore, MERS-CoV and both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 were inactivated at similar concentrations of the extract. Therefore we hypothesize that Echinacea purpurea preparations, such as Echinaforce®, could be effective as prophylactic treatment for all CoVs due to their structural similarities.
Keywords: Antivirals; Common cold; Coronavirus; Echinacea; HCoV-229E; MERS-CoV; Prevention; SARS-CoV-1; SARS-CoV-2.