We describe a mammalian cell-based assay to identify coronavirus 3CL protease (3CLpro) inhibitors. This assay is based on rescuing protease-mediated cytotoxicity and does not require live virus. By enabling the facile testing of compounds across a range of 15 distantly related coronavirus 3CLpro enzymes, we identified compounds with broad 3CLpro-inhibitory activity. We also adapted the assay for use in compound screening and in doing so uncovered additional severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) 3CLpro inhibitors. We observed strong concordance between data emerging from this assay and those obtained from live-virus testing. The reported approach democratizes the testing of 3CLpro inhibitors by developing a simplified method for identifying coronavirus 3CLpro inhibitors that can be used by the majority of laboratories, rather than the few with extensive biosafety infrastructure. We identified two lead compounds, GC376 and compound 4, with broad activity against all 3CL proteases tested, including 3CLpro enzymes from understudied zoonotic coronaviruses. IMPORTANCE Multiple coronavirus pandemics have occurred over the last 2 decades. This has highlighted a need to be proactive in the development of therapeutics that can be readily deployed in the case of future coronavirus pandemics. We developed and validated a simplified cell-based assay for the identification of chemical inhibitors of 3CL proteases encoded by a wide range of coronaviruses. This assay is reporter free, does not require specialized biocontainment, and is optimized for performance in high-throughput screening. By testing reported 3CL protease inhibitors against a large collection of 3CL proteases with variable sequence similarity, we identified compounds with broad activity against 3CL proteases and uncovered structural insights into features that contribute to their broad activity. Furthermore, we demonstrated that this assay is suitable for identifying chemical inhibitors of proteases from families other than 3CL proteases.
Keywords: 3CL protease; COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; antiviral drugs; cell-based assay; coronavirus; protease inhibitors; protease-mediated cytotoxicity; zoonotic coronaviruses.