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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

Shingles rash on the chest

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash with blisters that, characteristically, occurs in a stripe limited to just one side of the body. The rash usually heals within 2–5 weeks, but around one in five people experience residual nerve pain for months or years.

Shingles is caused by varicella zoster virus (VZV), an alpha-herpesvirus. Initial VZV infection usually occurs in childhood causing chickenpox. After this resolves, the virus is not eliminated from the body, but remains latent in the nerve cell bodies of the dorsal root or trigeminal ganglia, without causing symptoms. Years or decades later, shingles occurs when virions in a single ganglion reactivate, travel down nerve fibres and infect the skin around the nerve. The shingles rash is restricted to the area of skin supplied by a single spinal nerve, termed the dermatome. Exactly how VZV remains latent in the body, and subsequently reactivates, is unclear.

Around a third of the population will develop shingles. Repeated episodes are rare. In the United States, about half the cases occur in people aged 50 years or older. Vaccination at least halves the risk, and prompt treatment with aciclovir or related antiviral drugs can reduce the severity and duration of the rash.

Selected image

Chikungunya virus structure, based on cryoelectron microscopy

Chikungunya virus is an alphavirus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. The disease can cause severe joint pain, sometimes lasting for several months. Outbreaks have occurred across Africa, Asia and India, and in 2013–14, in South America and the Caribbean.

Credit: A2-33 (8 December 2013)

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

Child receiving oral polio vaccine in India

Vaccination or immunisation is the administration of immunogenic material (a vaccine) to stimulate an individual's immune system to develop adaptive immunity to a virus or other pathogen, and so develop protection against an infectious disease. The active agent of a vaccine may be intact but inactivated or weakened forms of the pathogen, or purified highly immunogenic components, such as viral envelope proteins. Smallpox was the first disease for which a vaccine was produced, by Edward Jenner in 1796.

Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing infectious diseases and can also ameliorate the symptoms of infection. When a sufficiently high proportion of a population has been vaccinated, herd immunity results. Widespread immunity due to mass vaccination is largely responsible for the worldwide eradication of smallpox and the elimination of diseases such as polio from much of the world. Since their inception, vaccination efforts have met with objections on scientific, ethical, political, medical safety and religious grounds, and the World Health Organization considers vaccine hesitancy an important threat to global health.

Selected outbreak

Villagers in Yambuku, Zaire, being examined by staff from the US CDC

The 1976 Zaire Ebola virus outbreak was one of the first two recorded outbreaks of the disease. The causative agent was identified as a novel virus, named for the region's Ebola River. The first identified case, in August, worked in the school in Yambuku, a small rural village in Mongala District, north Zaire. He had been treated for suspected malaria at the Yambuku Mission Hospital, which is now thought to have spread the virus by giving vitamin injections with inadequately sterilised needles, particularly to women attending prenatal clinics. Unsafe burial practices also spread the virus.

The outbreak was contained by quarantining local villages, sterilising medical equipment and providing protective clothing to medical personnel, and was over by early November. A total of 318 cases was recorded, of whom 280 died, an 88% case fatality rate. An earlier outbreak in June–November in Nzara, Sudan, was initially thought to be linked, but was shown to have been caused by a different species of Ebola virus.

Selected quotation

Hiroyuki Ogata & Jean-Michel Claverie on the relationship between Sputnik virophage and mimivirus

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Selected virus

Electron micrograph of canine parvovirus

Canine parvovirus type 2 (CPV2) is a non-enveloped, single-stranded DNA virus in the Parvoviridae family. The icosahedral viral capsid is only 20–26 nm in diameter, making it one of the smallest viruses. The genome is about 5000 nucleotides long. The virus is very similar to feline panleukopenia virus, another parvovirus, as well as mink enteritis and raccoon and fox parvoviruses. It infects dogs, wolves, foxes and other canids, big cats and occasionally domestic cats, but cannot infect humans.

A relatively new disease, CPV2 infection was first recognised in 1978 and rapidly spread worldwide. The virus is stable and highly infectious, being transmitted by contact with faeces, infected soil or contaminated objects. After ingestion, the virus replicates in the lymphoid tissue in the throat, then spreads to the bloodstream to infect cells of the lymph nodes, intestinal crypts and bone marrow, damaging the intestinal lining. The more common intestinal form of disease causes vomiting and severe, often bloody diarrhoea. The cardiac form affects puppies under 8 weeks, causing respiratory or cardiovascular failure; mortality can reach 91% in untreated cases. No specific antiviral drug is available. Prevention is by vaccination.

Did you know?

A still life of flowers in a vase including striped tulips

Selected biography

Randy Shilts (8 August 1951 – 17 February 1994) was an American journalist, author and AIDS activist. The first openly gay reporter for a mainstream US newspaper, Shilts covered the unfolding story of AIDS and its medical, social, and political ramifications from the first reports of the disease in 1981. New York University's journalism department later ranked his 1981–85 AIDS reporting in the top fifty works of American journalism of the 20th century. His extensively researched account of the early days of the epidemic in the US, And the Band Played On Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, first published in 1987, brought him national fame. The book won the Stonewall Book Award and was made into an award-winning film. Shilts saw himself as a literary journalist in the tradition of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. His writing has a powerful narrative drive and interweaves personal stories with political and social reporting.

He received the 1988 Outstanding Author award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the 1990 Mather Lectureship at Harvard University, and the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association. He died of AIDS in 1994.

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

Ball-and-stick model of nevirapine

Nevirapine (also Viramune) is an antiretroviral drug used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS caused by HIV-1. It was the first non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor to be licensed, which occurred in 1996. Like nucleoside inhibitors, nevirapine inhibits HIV's reverse transcriptase enzyme, which copies the viral RNA into DNA and is essential for its replication. Unlike nucleoside inhibitors, it binds not in the enzyme's active site but in a nearby hydrophobic pocket, causing a conformational change in the enzyme that prevents it from functioning. Mutations in the pocket generate resistance to nevirapine, which develops rapidly unless viral replication is completely suppressed. The drug is therefore only used together with other anti-HIV drugs in combination therapy. The HIV-2 reverse transcriptase has a different pocket structure, rendering it inherently resistant to nevirapine and other first-generation NNRTIs. A single dose of nevirapine is a cost-effective way to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and has been recommended by the World Health Organization for use in resource-poor settings. Other protocols are recommended in the United States. Rash is the most common adverse event associated with the drug.



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