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".
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.
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
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-19 – remdesivir; 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
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
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.
||Viruses are living chemicals...
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.
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In this month
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