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 6,000 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

Child with a measles rash

Measles is a disease that only affects humans caused by the measles virus, an RNA virus in the Paramyxoviridae family. It is highly contagious, with transmission occurring via the respiratory route or by contact with secretions. Symptoms generally develop 10–12 days after exposure and last 7–10 days; they include high fever, cough, rhinitis and conjunctivitis, white Koplik's spots inside the mouth and a generalised red maculopapular rash. Complications including diarrhoea, otitis media and pneumonia are relatively common; more rarely seizures, encephalitis, croup, corneal ulceration and blindness can occur. The risk of death is usually around 0.2%, but may be as high as 10–28% in areas with high levels of malnutrition and poor healthcare.

Measles was first described by Rhazes (860–932). The disease is estimated to have killed around 200 million people between 1855 and 2005. It affects about 20 million people a year, primarily in the developing areas of Africa and Asia, and is one of the leading vaccine-preventable disease causes of death. No antiviral drug is licensed. An effective measles vaccine is available, but uptake has been reduced by anti-vaccination campaigns, particularly the fraudulent claim that the MMR vaccine might be associated with autism. Rates of disease and deaths increased from 2017 to 2019, attributed to a decrease in immunisation.

Selected image

Transmission electron micrograph of multiple bacteriophages attached to a bacterium

Bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, are among the most common entities on Earth.

Credit: Graham Beards (21 October 2008)

In the news

Map showing the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 cases; black: highest prevalence; dark red to pink: decreasing prevalence; grey: no recorded cases or no data
Map showing the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 cases; black: highest prevalence; dark red to pink: decreasing prevalence; grey: no recorded cases or no data

26 February: In the ongoing pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), more than 110 million confirmed cases, including 2.5 million deaths, have been documented globally since the outbreak began in December 2019. WHO

18 February: Seven asymptomatic cases of avian influenza A subtype H5N8, the first documented H5N8 cases in humans, are reported in Astrakhan Oblast, Russia, after more than 100,0000 hens died on a poultry farm in December. WHO

14 February: Seven cases of Ebola virus disease are reported in Gouécké, south-east Guinea. WHO

7 February: A case of Ebola virus disease is detected in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. WHO

4 February: An outbreak of Rift Valley fever is ongoing in Kenya, with 32 human cases, including 11 deaths, since the outbreak started in November. WHO

21 November: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives emergency-use authorisation to casirivimab/imdevimab, a combination monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapy for non-hospitalised people twelve years and over with mild-to-moderate COVID-19, after granting emergency-use authorisation to the single mAb bamlanivimab earlier in the month. FDA 1, 2

18 November: The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Équateur Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, which started in June, has been declared over; a total of 130 cases were recorded, with 55 deaths. UN

Selected article

Martinus Beijerinck in his laboratory in 1921

The history of virology is usually considered to begin in the late 19th century, when the first evidence for the existence of viruses came from experiments using filters with pores small enough to retain bacteria. Dmitry Ivanovsky showed in 1892 that sap from a diseased tobacco plant remained infectious despite having been filtered; this agent, later known as tobacco mosaic virus, was the first virus to be demonstrated. In 1898, Friedrich Loeffler and Paul Frosch showed that foot-and-mouth, an animal disease, was caused by a filterable agent. That year, Martinus Beijerinck (pictured) called the filtered infectious substance a "virus" – often considered to mark the beginning of virology.

Bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, were characterised by Frederick Twort and Félix d'Herelle in the early 20th century. In 1926, Thomas Milton Rivers defined viruses as obligate parasites. Viruses were demonstrated to be particles, rather than a fluid, by Wendell Meredith Stanley, and the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 allowed them to be visualised.

Selected outbreak

Quarantine notices at the East Birmingham Hospital where the first case was initially treated

The last recorded smallpox death occurred during the 1978 smallpox outbreak in Birmingham, UK. The outbreak resulted from accidental exposure to the Abid strain of Variola major, from a laboratory, headed by Henry Bedson, at the University of Birmingham Medical School – also associated with an outbreak in 1966. Bedson was investigating strains of smallpox known as whitepox, considered a potential threat to the smallpox eradication campaign, then in its final stages.

A medical photographer who worked on the floor above the laboratory showed smallpox symptoms in August and died the following month; one of her contacts was also infected but survived. The government inquiry into the outbreak concluded that she had been infected in late July, possibly via ducting, although the precise route of transmission was subsequently challenged. The inquiry criticised the university's safety procedures. Bedson committed suicide while under quarantine. Radical changes in UK research practices for handling dangerous pathogens followed, and all known stocks of smallpox virus were concentrated in two laboratories.

Selected quotation

Ed Rybicki

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Selected virus

Electron micrograph of Sin Nombre virus, a hantavirus

Hantaviruses (or orthohantaviruses) are a family of RNA viruses in the Bunyavirales order. The enveloped virion is 120–160 nm in diameter and contains a single-stranded, negative-sense RNA genome with three segments. They infect many species of rodents, as well as shrews and moles, without causing disease, and can be transmitted to humans, where they can cause serious disease. Hantaan virus, the first known hantavirus, was discovered in 1976 as the cause of a novel haemorrhagic fever affecting combatants in the Korean War; it can also be caused by other hantaviruses, including Dobrava-Belgrade and Seoul viruses. Some hantaviruses, including Sin Nombre and Bayou, cause a pulmonary syndrome. Others have not yet been associated with human disease.

Unlike other bunyaviruses, hantaviruses are not transmitted by arthropods. Rodents act as the vector, with transmission to humans usually occurring via contact with urine, saliva or faeces, by inhalation of aerosolised excreta or by bite. Little is understood about how hantaviruses cause disease; the main site of viral replication in the body is unknown. Rodent control is important in disease prevention.

Did you know?

Influenza neuraminidase bound to an inhibitor

Selected biography

Oil painting of Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (1749–1823) was an English physician and scientist who pioneered the smallpox vaccine, the world's first vaccine. Noting the common observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner postulated that the pus in the blisters that milkmaids received from cowpox (a similar but much less virulent disease) protected them from smallpox. In 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by inoculating an eight-year-old boy with pus from an infected milkmaid. He subsequently repeatedly challenged the boy with variolous material, then the standard method of immunisation, without inducing disease. He published a paper including 23 cases in 1798. Although several others had previously inoculated subjects with cowpox, Jenner was the first to show that the procedure induced immunity to smallpox. He later successfully popularised cowpox vaccination.

Jenner is often called "the father of immunology", and his work is said to have saved more lives than that of any other individual.

In this month

Electron micrograph of SARS coronaviruses

7 November 1991: Magic Johnson announced his retirement from basketball because of his infection with HIV

14 November 1957: Kuru, the first human prion disease, described by Daniel Gajdusek and Vincent Zigas

16 November 2002: The first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (virus pictured) recorded in Guangdong, China

17 November 1995: Lamivudine approved for treatment of HIV

22 November 2013: Simeprevir approved for treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus infection

23 November 1978: Structure of tomato bushy stunt virus solved by Stephen Harrison and colleagues, the first atomic-level structure of a virus

24 November 2007: Outbreak of new Ebola species, Bundibugyo virus

26 November 1898: Martinus Beijerinck coined the term contagium vivum fluidum to describe the agent causing tobacco mosaic disease

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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