Publication date: Nov 30, 2023
Coronaviruses pose a permanent risk of outbreaks, with three highly pathogenic species and strains (SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2) having emerged in the last twenty years. Limited antiviral therapies are currently available and their efficacy in randomized clinical trials enrolling SARS-CoV-2 patients has not been consistent, highlighting the need for more potent treatments. We previously showed that cobicistat, a clinically approved inhibitor of Cytochrome P450-3A (CYP3A), has direct antiviral activity against early circulating SARS-CoV-2 strains in vitro and in Syrian hamsters. Cobicistat is a derivative of ritonavir, which is co-administered as pharmacoenhancer with the SARS-CoV-2 protease inhibitor nirmatrelvir, to inhibit its metabolization by CPY3A and preserve its antiviral efficacy. Here, we used automated image analysis for a screening and parallel comparison of the anti-coronavirus effects of cobicistat and ritonavir. Our data show that both drugs display antiviral activity at low micromolar concentrations against multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants in vitro, including epidemiologically relevant Omicron subvariants. Despite their close structural similarity, we found that cobicistat is more potent than ritonavir, as shown by significantly lower EC50 values in monotherapy and higher levels of viral suppression when used in combination with nirmatrelvir. Finally, we show that the antiviral activity of both cobicistat and ritonavir is maintained against other human coronaviruses, including HCoV-229E and the highly pathogenic MERS-CoV. Overall, our results demonstrate that cobicistat has more potent anti-coronavirus activity than ritonavir and suggest that dose adjustments could pave the way to the use of both drugs as broad-spectrum antivirals against highly pathogenic human coronaviruses.