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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

European rabbit with the Lausanne strain of myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is a disease of rabbits caused by Myxoma virus, a poxvirus in the genus Leporipoxvirus. The natural hosts are brush rabbits (Sylvilagus bachmani) in North America and tapeti (S. brasiliensis) in South and Central America, in which the myxoma virus causes only a mild disease, involving skin nodules. In European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), it causes a severe, often fatal, disease. Symptoms include fever, swelling of the eyelids and anogenital area, a mucopurulent ocular and nasal discharge, respiratory distress and hypothermia. Death generally occurs 10–12 days after infection. Myxoma virus is transmitted passively (without replication) by arthropod vectors, usually via the bites of mosquitoes and fleas, and also mites, flies and lice. It can also be transmitted by direct contact, and is shed in the ocular and nasal discharge and from eroded skin.

Myxoma virus was intentionally introduced in Australia, France and Chile in the 1950s to control wild European rabbit populations. This resulted in short-term 10–100-fold reductions in the rabbit population, followed by its recovery with the emergence of myxomatosis-resistant animals and attenuated virus variants. The introduction of myxomatosis is regarded as a classical example of host–pathogen coevolution following cross-species transmission of a pathogen to a naive host.

Selected image

False-coloured transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virions

False-coloured transmission electron micrograph of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, a novel coronavirus, showing the spikes (blue) forming a crown that give this group of RNA viruses their name. The spike protein interacts with the cellular receptor for the virus, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2.

Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (13 February 2020)

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

Cases of polio in 2005 (top) and 2019 (bottom). Red: endemic; orange: re-established; green: imported; blue: vaccine derived; grey: none
Cases of polio in 2005 (top) and 2019 (bottom). Red: endemic; orange: re-established; green: imported; blue: vaccine derived; grey: none

A global drive to eradicate poliovirus started in 1988, when there were an estimated 350,000 cases of wild poliovirus infection globally. Two diseases, both caused by viruses, have been eradicated, smallpox in 1980 and rinderpest in 2011. Poliovirus only infects humans. It persists in the environment for a few weeks at room temperature and a few months at 0–8 °C. The oral polio vaccine is inexpensive, highly effective and is predicted to generate lifelong immunity. Reversion of live vaccine strains to virulence has resulted in occasional cases of vaccine-associated polio paralysis.

Two of the three strains of wild-type poliovirus have been eradicated. Annual reported cases of wild poliovirus infection fell to a low of 22 in 2017, but had risen to 176 in 2019. As of 2020, the wild virus remains endemic only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but vaccine-derived poliovirus is circulating in several countries. A lack of basic health infrastructure and civil war remain significant obstacles to eradication. Some local communities have opposed immunisation campaigns, and vaccination workers have been murdered in Pakistan and Nigeria.

Selected outbreak

American soldiers with influenza H1N1 at a hospital ward at Camp Funston

The 1918–20 influenza pandemic, the first of the two involving H1N1 influenza virus, was unusually deadly. It infected 500 million people across the entire globe, with a death toll of 50–100 million (3–5% of the world's population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters of human history. It has also been implicated in the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s. Despite the nickname "Spanish flu", the pandemic's geographic origin is unknown.

Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill young, elderly or already weakened patients; in contrast this predominantly killed healthy young adults. Contemporary medical reports suggest that malnourishment, overcrowded medical facilities and poor hygiene promoted fatal bacterial pneumonia. Some research suggests that the virus might have killed through a cytokine storm, an overreaction of the body's immune system. This would mean the strong immune reactions of young adults resulted in a more severe disease than the weaker immune systems of children and older adults.

Selected quotation

Ed Rybicki

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Selected virus

Type 3 poliovirus capsid

Poliovirus is an enterovirus, an RNA virus in the Picornaviridae family, associated with the paralytic disease polio. The icosahedral virus particle is about 30 nanometres in diameter and lacks an envelope. It contains a relatively short, single-stranded positive RNA genome of around 7500 nucleotides, which encodes about ten viral products. The virus has a fairly high mutation rate even for an RNA virus. Historically there were three serotypes, each with a slightly different capsid protein; PV1 is the most common, and PV2 was declared eradicated in 2015.

The virus only naturally infects humans, although some monkeys can be infected experimentally; 95% of infections are asymptomatic. Infection occurs via the faecal–oral route and viral replication occurs in the alimentary tract. The virus enters the host cell by binding to an immunoglobulin-like receptor, CD155. Fully assembled poliovirus leaves the cell 4–6 hours after initiation of infection. Poliovirus was first isolated in 1909 by Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper. Its genome was sequenced in 1981. Among the simplest clinically significant viruses, poliovirus is one of the best-characterised viruses, and has become a useful model for studying RNA viruses.

Did you know?

Murine polyomavirus capsid structure

Selected biography

Jonas Salk (1955)

Jonas Edward Salk (28 October 1914 – 23 June 1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist, best known for developing the first successful polio vaccine.

Unlike most other researchers, Salk focused on creating an inactivated or "killed" virus vaccine, for safety reasons. The vaccine he developed combines three strains of wild-type poliovirus, inactivated with formalin. The field trial that tested its safety and efficacy in 1954 was one of the largest carried out to date, with vaccine being administered to over 440,000 children. When the trial's success was announced, Salk was hailed as a miracle worker and national hero. A little over two years later, 100 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed throughout the US, with few reported adverse effects. An inactivated vaccine based on the Salk vaccine is the mainstay of polio control in many developed countries.

Salk also researched vaccines against influenza and HIV. In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies research centre in La Jolla, California.

In this month

Diagram of the human rhinovirus capsid

1 September 1910: Peyton Rous shows that a sarcoma of chickens, subsequently associated with Rous sarcoma virus, is transmissible

3 September 1917: Discovery of bacteriophage of Shigella by Félix d'Herelle

8 September 1976: Death of Mabalo Lokela, the first known case of Ebola virus

8 September 2015: Discovery of giant virus Mollivirus sibericum in Siberian permafrost

11 September 1978: Janet Parker was the last person to die of smallpox

12 September 1957: Interferon discovered by Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann

12 September 1985: Structure of human rhinovirus 14 (pictured) solved by Michael Rossmann and colleagues, the first atomic-level structure of an animal virus

17 September 1999: Jesse Gelsinger died in a clinical trial of gene therapy using an adenovirus vector, the first known death due to gene therapy

20 September 2015: Wild poliovirus type 2 declared eradicated

26 September 1997: Combivir (zidovudine/lamivudine) approved; first combination antiretroviral

27 September 1985: Structure of poliovirus solved by Jim Hogle and colleagues

28 September 2007: First World Rabies Day is held

Selected intervention

Influenza vaccine strains are usually cultivated in fertilised chicken eggs.

Influenza vaccines include live attenuated and inactivated forms. Inactivated vaccines contain three or four different viral strains selected by the World Health Organization to cover influenza A H1N1 and H3N2, as well as influenza B, and are usually administered by intramuscular injection. The live attenuated influenza vaccine contains a cold-adapted strain and is given as a nasal spray. Most influenza vaccine strains are cultivated in fertilised chicken eggs (pictured), a technique developed in the 1950s; others are grown in cell cultures, and some vaccines contain recombinant proteins. Annual vaccination is recommended for high-risk groups and, in some countries, for all those over six months. As the influenza virus changes rapidly by antigenic drift, new versions of the vaccine are developed twice a year, which differ in effectiveness depending on how well they match the circulating strains. Despite considerable research effort for decades, no effective universal influenza vaccine has been identified. A 2018 meta-analysis found that vaccination in healthy adults decreased confirmed cases of influenza from about 2.4% to 1.1%. However, the effectiveness is uncertain in those over 65 years old, one of the groups at highest risk of serious complications.



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