The in vitro antiviral activity of lactoferrin against common human coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 is mediated by targeting the heparan sulfate co-receptor

Emerg Microbes Infect. 2021 Dec;10(1):317-330. doi: 10.1080/22221751.2021.1888660.


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an ongoing pandemic that lacks effective therapeutic interventions. SARS-CoV-2 infects ACE2-expressing cells and gains cell entry through either direct plasma membrane fusion or endocytosis. Recent studies have shown that in addition to ACE2, heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs) also play an important role in SARS-CoV-2 cell attachment by serving as an attachment factor. Binding of viral spike protein to HSPGs leads to the enrichment of local concentration for the subsequent specific binding with ACE2. We therefore hypothesize that blocking the interactions between viral spike protein and the HSPGs will lead to inhibition of viral replication. In this study, we report our findings of the broad-spectrum antiviral activity and the mechanism of action of lactoferrin (LF) against multiple common human coronaviruses as well as SARS-CoV-2. Our study has shown that LF has broad-spectrum antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2, HCoV-OC43, HCoV-NL63, and HCoV-229E in cell culture, and bovine lactoferrin (BLF) is more potent than human lactoferrin. Mechanistic studies revealed that BLF binds to HSPGs, thereby blocking viral attachment to the host cell. The antiviral activity of BLF can be antagonized by the HSPG mimetic heparin. Combination therapy experiment showed that the antiviral activity of LF is synergistic with remdesivir in cell culture. Molecular modelling suggests that the N-terminal positively charged region in BLF (residues 17-41) confers the binding to HSPGs. Overall, LF appears to be a promising drug candidate for COVID-19 that warrants further investigation.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; heparan sulfate; heparin; lactoferrin.

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Monophosphate / analogs & derivatives
  • Adenosine Monophosphate / pharmacology
  • Alanine / analogs & derivatives
  • Alanine / pharmacology
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Animals
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cattle
  • Cell Line
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Coronavirus / drug effects*
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Drug Synergism
  • Heparan Sulfate Proteoglycans / metabolism*
  • Heparin / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lactoferrin / pharmacology*
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • SARS-CoV-2 / drug effects*
  • Virus Attachment / drug effects


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Heparan Sulfate Proteoglycans
  • remdesivir
  • Adenosine Monophosphate
  • Heparin
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2
  • Lactoferrin
  • Alanine