Covalent and Non-Covalent Binding Free Energy Calculations for Peptidomimetic Inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Main Protease

26 November 2020, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


COVID-19, the disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2, has created global health, social, and economic crisis. At the time of writing (November 12, 2020), there are over 50 million confirmed cases and more than 1 million reported deaths due to COVID-19. Currently, there are no approved vaccines, and recently Veklury (remdesivir) was approved for the treatment of COVID-19 requiring hospitalization. The main protease (Mpro) of the virus is an attractive target for the development of effective antiviral therapeutics because it is required for proteolytic cleavage of viral polyproteins. Furthermore, the Mpro has no human homologues, so drugs designed to bind to this target directly have less risk for off-target reactivity. Recently, several high-resolution crystallographic structures of the Mpro in complex with inhibitors have been determined — to guide drug development and to spur efforts in structure-based drug design. One of the primary objectives of modern structure-based drug design is the accurate prediction of receptor­-ligand binding affinities for rational drug design and discovery. Here, we perform rigorous alchemical absolute binding free energy calculations and QM/MM calculations to give insight into the total binding energy of two recently crystallized inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro, namely, N3 and α-ketoamide 13b. The total binding energy consists of both covalent and non-covalent binding components since both compounds are covalent inhibitors of the Mpro. Our results indicate that the covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions of both inhibitors to the Mpro target differ significantly. The N3 inhibitor has more favourable non-covalent interactions, particularly hydrogen bonding, in the binding site of the Mpro than the α-ketoamide inhibitor. But the Gibbs energy of reaction for the Mpro–α-ketoamide covalent adduct is greater than the Gibbs reaction energy for the Mpro–N3 covalent adduct. These differences in the covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions for both inhibitors could be a plausible explanation for their in vitro differences in antiviral activity. Our findings highlight the importance of both covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions to the absolute binding affinity of a covalent inhibitor towards its target.


Absolute Binding Free Energy
SARS-CoV-2 Mpro
SARS-CoV-2 3CLpro
Peptidomimetic Inhibitors


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