Background: The two-component NS2B-NS3 proteases of West Nile and dengue viruses are essential for viral replication and established targets for drug development. In all crystal structures of the proteases to date, the NS2B cofactor is located far from the substrate binding site (open conformation) in the absence of inhibitor and lining the substrate binding site (closed conformation) in the presence of an inhibitor. Methods: In this work, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy of isotope and spin-labeled samples of the West Nile virus protease was used to investigate the occurrence of equilibria between open and closed conformations in solution. Findings: In solution, the closed form of the West Nile virus protease is the predominant conformation irrespective of the presence or absence of inhibitors. Nonetheless, dissociation of the C-terminal part of the NS2B cofactor from the NS3 protease (open conformation) occurs in both the presence and the absence of inhibitors. Low-molecular-weight inhibitors can shift the conformational exchange equilibria so that over 90% of the West Nile virus protease molecules assume the closed conformation. The West Nile virus protease differs from the dengue virus protease, where the open conformation is the predominant form in the absence of inhibitors. Conclusion: Partial dissociation of NS2B from NS3 has implications for the way in which the NS3 protease can be positioned with respect to the host cell membrane when NS2B is membrane associated via N- and C-terminal segments present in the polyprotein. In the case of the West Nile virus protease, discovery of low-molecular-weight inhibitors that act by breaking the association of the NS2B cofactor with the NS3 protease is impeded by the natural affinity of the cofactor to the NS3 protease. The same strategy can be more successful in the case of the dengue virus NS2B-NS3 protease. Copyright: © 2009 Su et al.