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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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Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the meninges, protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms in adults include headache, fever and neck stiffness, as well as sometimes confusion or altered consciousness, vomiting, and an inability to tolerate light or loud noises. Children often show only nonspecific symptoms, such as irritability or drowsiness.

The most common cause is infection with viruses including enteroviruses, herpes simplex virus (mainly HSV-2), varicella zoster virus, mumps virus, HIV and lymphocytic choriomeningitis. In Western countries, viral meningitis occurs in around 11 people per 100,000 each year. Infection with bacteria, fungi, protozoa and parasites can also cause meningitis, and there are several non-infectious causes. Although some forms of meningitis can be life-threatening, viral meningitis is generally more benign than that caused by bacterial infection. It usually resolves spontaneously and is rarely fatal. HSV-2 can cause a chronic, recurrent form called Mollaret's meningitis.

Polymerase chain reaction of cerebrospinal fluid and identification of antibodies can be used to differentiate between viral causes. Viral meningitis typically only requires supportive therapy; meningitis caused by HSV or varicella zoster virus sometimes responds to treatment with antiviral drugs such as aciclovir. Mumps-associated meningitis can be prevented by vaccination.

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Biosafety level 3 equipment is used for research with viruses such as influenza that can cause serious disease but for which treatment is available. The biosafety cabinet uses HEPA filters to filter viruses out of the air. This researcher is examining reconstructed 1918 pandemic influenza virus, or "Spanish flu".

Credit: CDC (2005)

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

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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Bacteriophages (or phages) are a large and diverse group of viruses that infect bacteria and archaea. Their genome, which they inject into the host's cytoplasm, can be DNA or RNA, single or double stranded, linear or circular, and contains between four and several hundred genes. Their capsid can be relatively simple or elaborate in structure, and in a few groups is surrounded by an envelope. Caudovirales, double-stranded DNA phages with tails, is the best-studied group, and includes T4 (pictured), λ phage and Mu phage.

Among the most common entities in the biosphere, bacteriophages are ubiquitous in locations populated by bacteria. One of the densest natural sources is sea water, where up to 900 million virions/mL have been found in microbial mats at the surface, and up to 70% of marine bacteria can be infected.

Used as an alternative to antibiotics for over 90 years, phages might offer a potential therapy against multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

Selected outbreak

The 2009 flu pandemic was an influenza pandemic first recognised in Mexico City in March 2009 and declared over in August 2010. It involved a novel strain of H1N1 influenza virus with genes from five different viruses, which resulted when a previous triple reassortment of avian, swine and human influenza viruses further combined with a Eurasian swine influenza virus, leading to the term "swine flu" being used for the pandemic. It was the second pandemic to involve an H1N1 strain, the first being the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic.

The global infection rate was estimated as 11–21%. This pandemic strain was less lethal than previous ones, killing about 0.01–0.03% of those infected, compared with 2–3% for Spanish flu. Most experts agree that at least 284,500 people died, mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia – comparable with the normal seasonal influenza fatalities of 290,000–650,000 – leading to claims that the World Health Organization had exaggerated the danger.

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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

Noroviruses are a genus of non-enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses in the family Caliciviridae. The positive-sense RNA genome is approximately 7500 nucleotides long. Known noroviruses fall into five different genogroups (GI–GV); three groups infect humans, the other two mice, and cattle and other bovines. All are considered strains of a single species, Norwalk virus.

Noroviruses are extremely contagious, with fewer than 20 virus particles being infectious. They are transmitted directly from person to person and indirectly via contaminated water and food. After infection, the virus replicates in the small intestine, causing acute gastroenteritis, which develops 12–48 hours after exposure and lasts for 24–72 hours. The characteristic symptoms include nausea, forceful vomiting, watery diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Infection is usually self-limiting and rarely severe. Noroviruses cause 18% of acute gastroenteritis episodes in humans, with around 685 million cases and 200,000 deaths every year, mainly in very young, elderly or immunosuppressed people. No vaccine is available. Hand washing with soap and water is effective in reducing transmission.

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Selected biography

Many well-known people have survived the paralytic disease polio. The earliest identified case might be Siptah (pictured), Egyptian pharaoh 1197–1191 BC, whose mummified remains have a deformed leg possibly from polio. Claudius, Roman emperor 41–54 AD, walked with a limp after a childhood disease that historians have hypothesised might have been polio. Novelist Sir Walter Scott suffered paralysis in one leg after a teething fever in 1773, which left him lame; his detailed account of his disease has allowed a retrospective diagnosis of polio to be made with confidence.

For many of those who survived it, paralytic polio was a life-changing experience. The disease can lead to permanent physical disability; Itzhak Perlman, for example, plays the violin seated. Others recover completely, with some going on to excel in sports; Ray Ewry became world's foremost standing jumper after childhood polio. Some survivors, including singer Ian Dury and actress Mia Farrow, have campaigned for polio eradication or for disability rights.

In this month

February 1939: First virology journal, Archiv für die gesamte Virusforschung, appeared

8 February 1951: Establishment of the HeLa cell line from a cervical carcinoma biopsy, the first immortal human cell line

12 February 1892: Dmitri Ivanovsky (pictured) demonstrated transmission of tobacco mosaic disease by extracts filtered through Chamberland filters; sometimes considered the beginning of virology

19 February 1966: Prion disease kuru shown to be transmissible

23 February 2018: Baloxavir marboxil, the first anti-influenza agent to target the cap-dependent endonuclease activity of the viral polymerase, approved in Japan

27 February 2005: H1N1 influenza strain resistant to oseltamivir reported in a human patient

24 February 1977: Phi X 174 sequenced by Fred Sanger and coworkers, the first virus and the first DNA genome to be sequenced

28 February 1998: Publication of Andrew Wakefield's Lancet paper, subsequently discredited, linking the MMR vaccine with autism, which started the MMR vaccine controversy

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Selected intervention

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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