Chloroquine is a potent inhibitor of SARS coronavirus infection and spread



Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by a newly discovered coronavirus (SARS-CoV). No effective prophylactic or post-exposure therapy is currently available.


We report, however, that chloroquine has strong antiviral effects on SARS-CoV infection of primate cells. These inhibitory effects are observed when the cells are treated with the drug either before or after exposure to the virus, suggesting both prophylactic and therapeutic advantage. In addition to the well-known functions of chloroquine such as elevations of endosomal pH, the drug appears to interfere with terminal glycosylation of the cellular receptor, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2. This may negatively influence the virus-receptor binding and abrogate the infection, with further ramifications by the elevation of vesicular pH, resulting in the inhibition of infection and spread of SARS CoV at clinically admissible concentrations.


Chloroquine is effective in preventing the spread of SARS CoV in cell culture. Favorable inhibition of virus spread was observed when the cells were either treated with chloroquine prior to or after SARS CoV infection. In addition, the indirect immunofluorescence assay described herein represents a simple and rapid method for screening SARS-CoV antiviral compounds.

Keywords: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, chloroquine, inhibition, therapy


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an emerging disease that was first reported in Guangdong Province, China, in late 2002. The disease rapidly spread to at least 30 countries within months of its first appearance, and concerted worldwide efforts led to the identification of the etiological agent as SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV), a novel member of the family Coronaviridae [1]. Complete genome sequencing of SARS-CoV [2,3] confirmed that this pathogen is not closely related to any of the previously established coronavirus groups. Budding of the SARS-CoV occurs in the Golgi apparatus [4] and results in the incorporation of the envelope spike glycoprotein into the virion. The spike glycoprotein is a type I membrane protein that facilitates viral attachment to the cellular receptor and initiation of infection, and angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) has been identified as a functional cellular receptor of SARS-CoV [5]. We have recently shown that the processing of the spike protein was effected by furin-like convertases and that inhibition of this cleavage by a specific inhibitor abrogated cytopathicity and significantly reduced the virus titer of SARS-CoV [6].

Due to the severity of SARS-CoV infection, the potential for rapid spread of the disease, and the absence of proven effective and safe in vivo inhibitors of the virus, it is important to identify drugs that can effectively be used to treat or prevent potential SARS-CoV infections. Many novel therapeutic approaches have been evaluated in laboratory studies of SARS-CoV: notable among these approaches are those using siRNA [7], passive antibody transfer [8], DNA vaccination [9], vaccinia or parainfluenza virus expressing the spike protein [10,11], interferons [12,13], and monoclonal antibody to the S1-subunit of the spike glycoprotein that blocks receptor binding [14]. In this report, we describe the identification of chloroquine as an effective pre- and post-infection antiviral agent for SARS-CoV. Chloroquine, a 9-aminoquinoline that was identified in 1934, is a weak base that increases the pH of acidic vesicles. When added extracellularly, the non-protonated portion of chloroquine enters the cell, where it becomes protonated and concentrated in acidic, low-pH organelles, such as endosomes, Golgi vesicles, and lysosomes. Chloroquine can affect virus infection in many ways, and the antiviral effect depends in part on the extent to which the virus utilizes endosomes for entry. Chloroquine has been widely used to treat human diseases, such as malaria, amoebiosis, HIV, and autoimmune diseases, without significant detrimental side effects [15]. Together with data presented here, showing virus inhibition in cell culture by chloroquine doses compatible with patient treatment, these features suggest that further evaluation of chloroquine in animal models of SARS-CoV infection would be warranted as we progress toward finding effective antivirals for prevention or treatment of the disease.


Preinfection chloroquine treatment renders Vero E6 cells refractory to SARS-CoV infection

In order to investigate if chloroquine might prevent SARS-CoV infection, permissive Vero E6 cells [1] were pretreated with various concentrations of chloroquine (0.1–10 μM) for 20–24 h prior to virus infection. Cells were then infected with SARS-CoV, and virus antigens were visualized by indirect immunofluorescence as described in Materials and Methods. Microscopic examination (Fig. (Fig.1A)1A) of the control cells (untreated, infected) revealed extensive SARS-CoV-specific immunostaining of the monolayer. A dose-dependant decrease in virus antigen-positive cells was observed starting at 0.1 μM chloroquine, and concentrations of 10 μM completely abolished SARS-CoV infection. For quantitative purposes, we counted the number of cells stained positive from three random locations on a slide. The average number of positively stained control cells was scored as 100% and was compared with the number of positive cells observed under various chloroquine concentrations (Fig. (Fig.1B).1B). Pretreatment with 0.1, 1, and 10 μM chloroquine reduced infectivity by 28%, 53%, and 100%, respectively. Reproducible results were obtained from three independent experiments. These data demonstrated that pretreatment of Vero E6 cells with chloroquine rendered these cells refractory to SARS-CoV infection.

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