Hydroxychloroquine, used to treat malaria and some autoimmune disorders, potently inhibits viral infection of SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) and SARS-CoV-2 in cell-culture studies. However, human clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine failed to establish its usefulness as treatment for COVID-19. This compound is known to interfere with endosomal acidification necessary to the proteolytic activity of cathepsins. Following receptor binding and endocytosis, cathepsin L can cleave the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) proteins, thereby activating membrane fusion for cell entry. The plasma membrane-associated protease TMPRSS2 can similarly cleave these S proteins and activate viral entry at the cell surface. Here we show that the SARS-CoV-2 entry process is more dependent than that of SARS-CoV-1 on TMPRSS2 expression. This difference can be reversed when the furin-cleavage site of the SARS-CoV-2 S protein is ablated. We also show that hydroxychloroquine efficiently blocks viral entry mediated by cathepsin L, but not by TMPRSS2, and that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and a clinically-tested TMPRSS2 inhibitor prevents SARS-CoV-2 infection more potently than either drug alone. These studies identify functional differences between SARS-CoV-1 and -2 entry processes, and provide a mechanistic explanation for the limited in vivo utility of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.
The novel pathogenic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19 and remains a threat to global public health. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been shown to prevent viral infection in cell-culture systems, but human clinical trials did not observe a significant improvement in COVID-19 patients treated with these compounds. Here we show that hydroxychloroquine interferes with only one of two somewhat redundant pathways by which the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein is activated to mediate infection. The first pathway is dependent on the endosomal protease cathepsin L and sensitive to hydroxychloroquine, whereas the second pathway is dependent on TMPRSS2, which is unaffected by this compound. We further show that SARS-CoV-2 is more reliant than SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) on the TMPRSS2 pathway, and that this difference is due to a furin cleavage site present in the SARS-CoV-2 S protein. Finally, we show that combinations of hydroxychloroquine and a clinically tested TMPRSS2 inhibitor work together to effectively inhibit SARS-CoV-2 entry. Thus TMPRSS2 expression on physiologically relevant SARS-CoV-2 target cells may bypass the antiviral activities of hydroxychloroquine, and explain its lack of in vivo efficacy.