Direct-acting antivirals for the treatment of COVID-19, which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), are needed to complement vaccination efforts. The papain-like protease (PLpro) of SARS-CoV-2 is essential for viral proliferation. In addition, PLpro dysregulates the host immune response by cleaving ubiquitin and interferon-stimulated gene 15 protein (ISG15) from host proteins. As a result, PLpro is a promising target for inhibition by small-molecule therapeutics. Here we have designed a series of covalent inhibitors by introducing a peptidomimetic linker and reactive electrophilic “warheads” onto analogs of the noncovalent PLpro inhibitor GRL0617. We show that the most promising PLpro inhibitor is potent and selective, with activity in cell-based antiviral assays rivaling that of the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase inhibitor remdesivir. An X-ray crystal structure of the most promising lead compound bound covalently to PLpro establishes the molecular basis for protease inhibition and selectivity against structurally similar human deubiquitinases. These findings present an opportunity for further development of potent and selective covalent PLpro inhibitors.

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