The Viruses Portal

The capsid of SV40, an icosahedral virus
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".

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Tonsil biopsy in vCJD, with immunostaining showing prion protein

Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, or vCJD, is a rare type of central nervous system disease within the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy family, caused by a prion. First identified in 1996, vCJD is now distinguished from classic CJD. The incubation period is believed to be years, possibly over 50 years. Prion protein can be detected in appendix and lymphoid tissue (pictured) up to two years before the onset of neurological symptoms, which include psychiatric problems, behavioural changes and painful sensations. Abnormal prion proteins build up as amyloid deposits in the brain, which acquires a characteristic spongiform appearance, with many round vacuoles in the cerebellum and cerebrum. The average life expectancy after symptoms start is 13 months.

About 170 cases have been recorded in the UK, and 50 cases in the rest of the world. The estimated prevalence in the UK is about 1 in 2000, higher than the reported cases. Transmission is believed to be mainly from consuming beef contaminated with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy prion, but may potentially also occur via blood products or contaminated surgical equipment. Infection is also believed to require a specific genetic susceptibility in the PRNP-encoding gene. Human PRNP protein can have either methionine or valine at position 129; nearly all of those affected had two copies of the methionine-containing form, found in 40% of Caucasians.

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Egyptian stele believed to show a poliomyelitis survivor

This 18th Dynasty Egyptian stele, believed to show a priest with poliomyelitis-associated deformity, is one of the earliest records of a viral disease.

Credit: Unknown (1580–1350 BC)

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

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16th-century Aztec print showing a person with measles
16th-century Aztec print showing a person with measles

Viruses and viral infections have affected human history. Epidemics caused by viruses began when human behaviour changed during the Neolithic period, around 12,000 years ago. Previously hunter-gatherers, humans developed more densely populated agricultural communities, which allowed viruses to spread rapidly and subsequently to become endemic. Viruses of plants and livestock also increased, and as humans became dependent on agriculture and farming, diseases such as potyviruses of potatoes and rinderpest of cattle had devastating consequences. Smallpox and measles viruses are among the oldest that infect humans. They first appeared in humans in Europe and North Africa thousands of years ago, having evolved from viruses that infected other animals. Influenza pandemics have been recorded since 1580.

There are an estimated 1031 viruses on Earth. Although scientific interest in them arose because of the diseases they cause, most viruses are beneficial. They drive evolution by transferring genes across species, play important roles in ecosystems, and are essential to life.

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.

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Lewis Thomas

Recommended articles

Viruses & Subviral agents: bat virome • elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus • HIV • introduction to viruses • Playa de Oro virus • poliovirus • prion • rotavirus • virus

Diseases: colony collapse disorder • common cold • croup • dengue fever • gastroenteritis • Guillain–Barré syndrome • hepatitis B • hepatitis C • hepatitis E • herpes simplex • HIV/AIDS • influenza • meningitis • myxomatosis • polio • pneumonia • shingles • smallpox

Epidemiology & Interventions: 2007 Bernard Matthews H5N1 outbreak • Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations • Disease X • 2009 flu pandemic • HIV/AIDS in Malawi • polio vaccine • Spanish flu • West African Ebola virus epidemic

Virus–Host interactions: antibody • host • immune system • parasitism • RNA interference

Methodology: metagenomics

Social & Media: And the Band Played On • Contagion • "Flu Season" • Frank's Cock • Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa • social history of viruses • "Steve Burdick" • "The Time Is Now" • "What Lies Below"

People: Brownie Mary • Macfarlane Burnet • Bobbi Campbell • Aniru Conteh • people with hepatitis C • HIV-positive people • Bette Korber • Henrietta Lacks • Linda Laubenstein • Barbara McClintock • poliomyelitis survivors • Joseph Sonnabend • Eli Todd • Ryan White

Selected virus

Electron micrograph of canine parvovirus
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.

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NMR structure of part of the agnoprotein
NMR structure of part of the agnoprotein

Selected biography

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1945)

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (3 September 1899 – 31 August 1985) was an Australian virologist, microbiologist and immunologist. His early virological studies were on bacteriophages, including the pioneering observation that bacteriophages could exist as a stable non-infectious form that multiplies with the bacterial host, later termed the lysogenic cycle.

With the outbreak of World War II, Burnet's focus moved to influenza. Although his efforts to develop a live vaccine proved unsuccessful, he developed assays for the isolation, culture and detection of influenza virus, including haemagglutination assays. Modern methods for producing influenza vaccines are still based on his work improving virus-growing processes in hen's eggs. He also researched influenza virus genetics, examining the genetic control of virulence and demonstrating, several years before influenza virus was shown to have a segmented genome, that the virus recombined at high frequency.

In this month

Louis Pasteur in 1878

1 July 1796: Edward Jenner first challenged James Phipps with variolation, showing that cowpox inoculation is protective against smallpox

3 July 1980: Structure of southern bean mosaic virus solved by Michael Rossmann and colleagues

6 July 1885: Louis Pasteur (pictured) gave rabies vaccine to Joseph Meister

10 July 1797: Jenner submitted paper on Phipps and other cases to the Royal Society; it was read to the society but not published

14–20 July 1968: First International Congress for Virology held in Helsinki

16 July 2012: FDA approved tenofovir/emtricitabine (Truvada) for prophylactic use against HIV; first prophylactic antiretroviral

19 July 2013: Pandoravirus described, with a genome twice as large as Megavirus

22 July 1966: International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses (later the ICTV) founded

25 July 1985: Film star Rock Hudson made his AIDS diagnosis public, increasing public awareness of the disease

28 July 2010: First global World Hepatitis Day

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Selected intervention

Child receiving the oral polio vaccine
Child receiving the oral polio vaccine

Two polio vaccines are used against the paralytic disease polio. The first, developed by Jonas Salk, consists of inactivated poliovirus. Based on three wild virulent strains, inactivated using formalin, it is administered by injection and is very safe. It confers IgG-mediated immunity, which prevents poliovirus from entering the bloodstream and protects the motor neurons, eliminating the risk of bulbar polio and post-polio syndrome. The second, developed by Albert Sabin, originally consisted of three live virus strains, attenuated by growth in cell culture. Since 2016, only two strains have generally been included. They contain multiple mutations, preventing them from replicating in the nervous system. The Sabin vaccine stimulates both antibodies and cell-mediated immunity, providing longer-lasting immunity than the Salk vaccine. It can be administered orally, making it more suitable for mass vaccination campaigns. In around three cases per million doses, the live vaccine reverts to a virulent form and causes paralysis. Vaccination has reduced the number of wild-type polio cases from around 350,000 in 1988 to just 33 in 2018, and eradicated the disease from most countries.


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