Inherited genetic factors can influence the severity of COVID-19, but the molecular explanation underpinning a genetic association is often unclear. Intracellular antiviral defenses can inhibit the replication of viruses and reduce disease severity. To better understand the antiviral defenses relevant to COVID-19, we used interferon-stimulated gene (ISG) expression screening to reveal that 2′-5′-oligoadenylate synthetase 1 (OAS1), through ribonuclease L, potently inhibits severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). We show that a common splice-acceptor single-nucleotide polymorphism (Rs10774671) governs whether patients express prenylated OAS1 isoforms that are membrane-associated and sense-specific regions of SARS-CoV-2 RNAs or if they only express cytosolic, nonprenylated OAS1 that does not efficiently detect SARS-CoV-2. In hospitalized patients, expression of prenylated OAS1 was associated with protection from severe COVID-19, suggesting that this antiviral defense is a major component of a protective antiviral response.