“Virus” is a scary word. Having just been vaccinated simultaneously with a pneumococcal vaccine and a recombitant zoster vaccine—one to prevent pneumonia and one to prevent shingles, and slowly recovering from some impressive reactogenicity symptoms, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One caveat: pneumococcal vaccines aid the body in fighting off Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is a bacterium. Not quite the same thing.
Virus comes from a Latin root meaning poison, so the bug that infects you or your computer is poisonous. Justly so and apt.
A virus is not strictly a living thing, although it is constructed of biological molecules—lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. Its weapon of choice, however, is RNA, ribonucleic acid, an unstable and volatile substance, excellently trained to code and recode targeted genes. It doesn’t have to do it accurately either, as the chaos of its coding errors overwhelm the host cell. This is the class of bugs known as retroviruses.
This is why the flu is so difficult to knock back. Its a game of chance scientists play using very smart and quick computer models to predict which 3 strains (of millions of possibilities) to manufacture for the next flu season. Because the influenza virus can appear in many guises to its targeted cells—respiratory tract and mucus membranes—host cells don’t have a chance, unless enough immunogenitic material is available to it. Host cells don’t see the virus as a threat, rather like the nightmarish scenario of letting the serial killer disguised as the cable repair man into your house.
It’s a remarkable process. Without disease, we wouldn’t even be here. Think about that.
Another talent of the virus is turbo-charged mutation. The human immunodeficiency virus is a pro, thus why there is not yet, after many, many years of research, a vaccine. To effectively support immunity against HIV, vaccines must of necessity be extremely complex—like all vaccines, protection would never be 100 percent.
If you’re worried, keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to contract the flu than become seropositive with HIV. However the flu is nothing to “sneeze” at.
The most successful viruses are the retroviruses, which group includes some big hitters: Hepatitis B—for which now there is a vaccine, luckily, Ebola, and Rabies. Poliovirus is nearly eradicated, while mutiple other unwanted guests such as West Nile, Zika and Dengue are on their way to visit us.
Retroviruses can infect across species, too. Chickens, pigs, gorillas and chimps can share their ailments with us, thanks to the virus’s talent for replication and mutation.
It’s really a wonderful thing, this unthinking biological machine, adaptive and frustrating. To think your bout of chicken pox (Varicella virus) as a child can settle into neurons and bloom into excrutiating rashes as an adult is disturbing in the least. And if you were lucky enough to get, and survive, poliomyelitis with minimal sequellae, you never thought that the virus would be able to progressively weaken muscles in your body sixty years later. (Wikipedia tells me that Arthur C Clarke suffered from post-polio syndrome, as did my aunt).
I’ll stay off my soapbox labeled “get the hell vaccinated!”. This time. I’ll just sit back and admire the creature, if that’s an appropriate moniker for something that is not even alive.
Wow. Think about that.