The Viruses Portal

The capsid of SV40, an icosahedral virus

Viruses are small infectious agents that can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses infect all forms of life, including animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and archaea. They are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most abundant type of biological entity, with millions of different types, although only about 5,000 viruses have been described in detail. Some viruses cause disease in humans, and others are responsible for economically important diseases of livestock and crops.

Virus particles (known as virions) consist of genetic material, which can be either DNA or RNA, wrapped in a protein coat called the capsid; some viruses also have an outer lipid envelope. The capsid can take simple helical or icosahedral forms, or more complex structures. The average virus is about 1/100 the size of the average bacterium, and most are too small to be seen directly with an optical microscope.

The origins of viruses are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids, others from bacteria. Viruses are sometimes considered to be a life form, because they carry genetic material, reproduce and evolve through natural selection. However they lack key characteristics (such as cell structure) that are generally considered necessary to count as life. Because they possess some but not all such qualities, viruses have been described as "organisms at the edge of life".

Selected disease

Light microscope image of an H&E-stained liver biopsy, showing "ground glass hepatocytes" associated with chronic hepatitis B infection

Hepatitis B is an infectious inflammatory disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV), a hepadnavirus. It affects humans and possibly other great apes. The virus is transmitted by exposure to infectious blood or some body fluids. Mother-to-child transmission is a major route in endemic countries. HBV is 50–100 times more infectious than HIV. The virus replicates in liver cells, and enters the blood where viral proteins and antiviral antibodies are found.

Acute infection is often asymptomatic but can cause liver inflammation resulting in vomiting, jaundice and, rarely, death. Over 95% of infected adults and older children clear the infection spontaneously, developing protective immunity. Only 30% of children aged 1–6 years and 5% of newborns infected perinatally clear the infection. Chronic hepatitis B may eventually progress to cirrhosis and liver cancer, causing death in around 40% of those chronically infected. The virus has infected humans since at least the Bronze Age, with HBV DNA being found in 4,500-year-old human remains. About a third of the global population has been infected at one point in their lives, including nearly 350 million who are chronic carriers. The virus is endemic in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Infection can be prevented by vaccination.

Selected image

American Federal Art Project poster dating from 1937 about the common cold

The common cold is the most frequent infectious disease. Despite the advice to "consult your physician" no antiviral treatment has been approved, and colds are only rarely associated with serious complications.

Credit: Federal Art Project (1937)

In the news

Map showing the distribution of coronavirus cases; black: highest incidence; dark red to pink: decreasing incidence; grey: no recorded cases
Map showing the distribution of coronavirus cases; black: highest incidence; dark red to pink: decreasing incidence; grey: no recorded cases

4 April: The ongoing pandemic of a novel coronavirus is accelerating rapidly; more than a million confirmed cases, including more than 57,000 deaths, have been documented globally since the outbreak began in December 2019. WHO 1, 2

27 March: An international, randomised, non-blinded, clinical trial organised by the World Health Organization of four potential treatments for COVID-19remdesivir; chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine; lopinavir/ritonavir; or lopinavir/ritonavir plus interferon-beta – is about to start enrolling patients. Science, WHO

16 March: A phase I clinical trial of a messenger RNA-based vaccine candidate for the novel coronavirus begins in Seattle. NIH

11 March: The World Health Organization describes the ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus as a pandemic. WHO

10 March: A patient with apparent clearance of HIV after stem-cell therapy continues to have no viable virus detectable in blood or other reservoirs after 30 months without antiretroviral treatment. Lancet

9 March: No new cases have been recorded in three weeks in the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; as of 3 March there had been a total of 3444 cases, including 2264 deaths, since the outbreak began in August 2018. WHO 1, 2

False-coloured electron micrograph of novel coronavirus
False-coloured electron micrograph of novel coronavirus

12 February: The ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, according to the World Health Organization. WHO 1

7 February: Chinese scientists announce that novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is 99% identical to a coronavirus isolated from pangolins, suggesting these animals might be an intermediate host. Nature

5 February: A study of 2658 samples from 38 different types of cancer found that 16% were associated with a virus, higher than previous estimates, but did not identify any new candidate tumour viruses. Nat Genet

4 February: Over 2500 putative circular DNA virus genomes are catalogued from metagenomic surveys of human and animal samples, including over 600 dissimilar to existing virus groups. eLife, Science

3 February: The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases stops the South African HVTN 702 Phase IIb/III clinical trial of an investigational HIV vaccine early, after the vaccine failed to prevent HIV infection. NIH

Selected article

Ribbon diagram of the Dicer enzyme from Giardia intestinalis

RNA interference is a type of gene silencing that forms an important part of the immune response against viruses and other foreign genetic material in plants and many other eukaryotes. A cell enzyme called Dicer (pictured) cleaves double-stranded RNA molecules found in the cell cytoplasm – such as the genome of an RNA virus or its replication intermediates – into short fragments termed small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These are separated into single strands and integrated into a large multi-protein RNA-induced silencing complex, where they recognise their complementary messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules and target them for destruction. This prevents the mRNAs acting as a template for translation into proteins, and so inhibits, or silences, the expression of viral genes.

RNA interference allows the entire plant to respond to a virus after a localised encounter, as the siRNAs can transfer between cells via plasmodesmata. The protective effect can be transferred between plants by grafting. Many plant viruses have evolved elaborate mechanisms to suppress this response. RNA interference evolved early in eukaryotes, and the system is widespread. It is important in innate immunity towards viruses in some insects, but relatively little is known about its role in mammals. Research is ongoing into the application of RNA interference to antiviral treatments.

Selected outbreak

Map showing Ebola virus disease cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in December 2014

The West African Ebola epidemic was the most widespread outbreak of the disease to date. Beginning in Meliandou in southern Guinea in December 2013, it spread to adjacent Liberia and Sierra Leone, affecting the cities of Conakry and Monrovia, with minor outbreaks in Mali and Nigeria. Cases reached a peak in October 2014 and the epidemic was under control by late 2015, although occasional cases continued to occur into April 2016. Ring vaccination with the then-experimental vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV was trialled in Guinea.

More than 28,000 suspected cases were reported with more than 11,000 deaths; the case fatality rate was around 40% overall and around 58% in hospitalised patients. Early in the epidemic nearly 10% of the dead were healthcare workers. The outbreak left about 17,000 survivors, many of whom reported long-lasting post-recovery symptoms. Extreme poverty, dysfunctional healthcare systems, distrust of government after years of armed conflict, local burial customs of washing the body, the unprecedented spread of Ebola to densely populated cities, and the delay in response of several months all contributed to the failure to control the epidemic.

Selected quotation

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Selected virus

False-coloured electron micrograph of Hendra virus

Henipaviruses are a genus of RNA viruses in the Paramyxoviridae family. The variably shaped, 40–600 nm diameter, enveloped capsid contains a single-stranded, negative-sense RNA genome of 18.2 kb, with six genes. The cellular receptor is Ephrin B2. Their natural hosts are bats, mainly the Pteropus genus of megabats (flying foxes) and some microbats. Bats infected with Hendra virus develop viraemia and shed virus in urine, faeces and saliva for around a week, but show no signs of disease. Henipaviruses can also infect humans and livestock, causing severe disease with high mortality, making the group a zoonootic disease. Transmission to humans appears to occur via an intermediate domestic animal host.

The first henipavirus, Hendra virus, was discovered in 1994 as the cause of an outbreak in horses in Brisbane, Australia. Nipah virus was identified a few years later in Malaysia as the cause of an outbreak in pigs. Three other species have since been recognised. Their emergence as human pathogens has been linked to increased contact between bats and humans. Human disease has been confined to Australia and Asia, but members of the genus have also been found in African bats. A veterinary vaccine against Hendra virus is available but no human vaccine has been licensed.

Did you know?

A still life of flowers in a vase including striped tulips

Selected biography

Aniru Conteh

Aniru Sahib Sahib Conteh (6 August 1942 – 4 April 2004) was a Sierra Leonean physician and expert on the clinical treatment of Lassa fever, a viral haemorrhagic fever endemic to West Africa.

He joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Lassa fever programme in Segbwema, first as superintendent and then as clinical director. After the Sierra Leone Civil War began in 1991, Conteh moved to the Kenema Government Hospital, where he spent the next two decades running the only dedicated Lassa fever ward in the world. He collaborated with the British charity Merlin to promote public health in Sierra Leone through education and awareness campaigns intended to prevent Lassa fever. With little funding and few supplies, he successfully reduced mortality rates and saved many lives until an accidental needlestick injury led to his own death from the disease in 2004.

Conteh received renewed public attention in 2009 as the hero of Ross I. Donaldson's memoir, The Lassa Ward.

In this month

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus

1 August 1971: The term viroid was coined by Theodor Diener to describe the agent of potato spindle tuber disease

6 August 2007: Maraviroc, first CCR5 receptor antagonist, approved for HIV/AIDS

8 August 2011: UN declared rinderpest eradicated

8 August 2014: WHO declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (virus pictured), the most widespread so far, an international public health emergency

18 August 1990: Ryan White Care Act enacted, the largest American federally funded programme for people living with HIV/AIDS

20 August 1780: Start of an outbreak of dengue fever in Philadelphia, USA, which led Benjamin Rush to describe the disease in 1789

26 August 1976: First case of Ebola virus, now the Zaire form

26 August 1998: Fomivirsen, first antisense drug, approved for cytomegalovirus retinitis

Selected intervention

Ball-and-stick model of zidovudine

Zidovudine (ZDV) (also known as AZT and sold as Retrovir) is an antiretroviral drug used in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. Classed as a nucleoside analogue reverse-transcriptase inhibitor, it inhibits HIV's reverse transcriptase enzyme, which copies the viral RNA into DNA and is essential for its replication. The first breakthrough in AIDS therapy, ZDV was licensed in 1987. While it significantly reduces HIV replication, leading to some clinical and immunological benefits, when used alone ZDV does not completely stop replication, allowing the virus to become resistant to it. The drug is therefore used together with other anti-HIV drugs in combination therapy called highly active antiretroviral therapy. To simplify its administration, ZDV is included in combination pills with lamivudine (Combivir) and lamivudine plus abacavir (Trizivir). ZDV continues to be used to prevent HIV transmission from mother to child during childbirth; it was previously part of the standard post-exposure prophylaxis after needlestick injury.



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