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Are viruses alive?

By on January 25, 2021 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Jim Brown

Questions and insights into an often misunderstood biologic entity

By Jim Brown, M.D.

Since this current pandemic arrived on our shores, I have wanted to know more about viruses. 

The question as to whether or not viruses are “alive” is not a question with easy answers. 

Biologists and virologists don’t all agree on an answer. It depends in part on how we define “life.” 

Viruses are a biologic entity with a protein coating and some genetic material inside. 

Most biologists agree to be considered a “living” organism, they need to have certain properties. Can they grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli and carry out various metabolic processes? Do viruses reproduce themselves? 

Actually viruses don’t reproduce themselves but are replicated once they invade the cells of humans, animals and in some cases plants. 

We humans play a role in this whenever we inhale these viruses. They invade the cells in our nasal passages, upper respiratory system and lungs, making them burst, thus killing our own cells. 

If our own immune systems don’t recognize these foreign invaders, we have little protection. 

If we have not had a similar viral infection like this in the past and have not been vaccinated previously for this particular virus, we have little to fight these sometimes-deadly infections. This is the main reason why vaccination protects us. 

Viruses don’t spread unless we help them. This also is the reason why we need to be wearing masks as much as possible especially when we are around other humans. 

When someone infected coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings around us and we are maskless, the viruses go to work on our cells. 

We give viruses and bacteria an assist by picking our noses and touching our eyes. 

One study suggests that 91 percent of us pick our noses. Sounds gross, right? When we do this, we are transferring germs including viruses from our fingertips into the nose, something we should be avoiding.

This also is a good reason for frequent hand washing. Our bodies do their best with our immune system kicking in to fight these viruses, so why not help them? 

One wonders where viruses come from. There is no simple answer, but it is thought that they emerged over 3.5 billion years ago after life first appeared on our planet. 

It is easy to think that viruses are our enemies. After all, they are the cause of epidemics and pandemics with tremendous loss of life in our lifetimes. 

We have heard about or experienced pandemics like COVID-19, SARS-Cov-2, MERSA, Ebola, HIV, swine flu, bird flu and Zia to name a few. For various reasons most of the deadly viruses originate from animals in China and Africa. 

 My own grandfather had the Spanish Flu in his 20s, and had enough brain damage that he spent the rest of his life in a Michigan state hospital. 

Most of us now probably think of viruses as serious dangerous entities to be avoided at all costs. 

While obviously impossible anyway, experts suggest less than 1 percent of all viruses are pathogens or harmful to humans. 

Viruses affect all kinds of life forms, from bacteria, animals and plants to people. There is actually a body of knowledge suggesting the importance and potential benefits of viruses in our lives, in agriculture and in our health. 

I am quite sure the idea of a “good” virus is not something most would think possible. Yet, some viruses actually kill some bacteria while others fight against dangerous invading bacteria. 

The microbiome bacteria in our gut are extremely important to our overall health. Antibiotics taken for certain illnesses can kill off the harmful bacteria but also the good gut bacteria that are so important to our health. 

The collection of viruses in our gut can protect against intestinal damage caused by these antibiotics. 

There is research going on showing promise in developing viruses that can attack cancer cells. 

Some research suggests there will be a time when people infected with bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics might be treated by viruses that can kill that particular bacteria. 

The more I read about viruses, the more hopeful I am about the potential good they might offer all of us in the future. 

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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