Outnumbered by viruses by Susan Grimsdell
I’ve been reading about viruses. There are trillions of them. For example, in a litre of sea water a scientist identified 100 billion viruses. Hundreds of thousands inhabit our bodies, but luckily very few of those have been found to affect us – so far, just 263 out of those hordes. This is something I did not know, that they are everywhere inside our bodies, in our noses, on our skin, in our lungs, in the gastrointestinal tract, swarms and swarms of them.
A sense of purpose
They are not alive. They are microscopic particles consisting of a genetic code in a shell with a purpose in life, just like us. That purpose is to replicate itself, but viruses can’t get around on their own steam. They hitchhike, lying inertly on, say, a door handle, until someone comes along, opens the door, and the virus gets attached to that person. Or else someone sneezes and the virus leaves that person and lands on a new person – you or me. It can then wreak havoc or else stay perfectly harmless. If the virus gets inside a cell, it hijacks it and produces a protein that replicates its own genetic material and away it goes – bad news for the host but success for the virus.
We’ve seen pictures of the Covid virus with the hooks all over it. That makes it very easy for Covid to attach itself wherever it happens to land and insinuate itself into the host’s own cells. Viruses infect every form of life on earth – plants, fungi, even bacteria, but luckily for us one kind of virus focuses on infecting one kind of host, thus bird flu, cat flu, HIV – these rarely cross over, but as we know, rarely is not never.
A tendency to lurk
Viruses can stay dormant for millions of years. A virus unearthed in a piece of permafrost in Siberia had been there for literally 30 million years, but sprang to life as soon as it landed on a more congenial host. They lurk too. The virus that causes chickenpox in children can stay in the body for decades, doing nothing at all until one day it comes to life and causes shingles, a horribly painful condition. The herpes virus has been around for tens of millions of years, rearing its head regularly.
The common cold is caused by a virus, and the way it can spread was demonstrated effectively when a volunteer was fitted with a device that dribbled a clear fluid containing an invisible dye, from his nose (yes, gross, but this is science). He went to a social occasion, and half an hour later, they turned on a UV light, which illuminated all the places showing traces of the dye. It was on the glasses, on the doors, on people’s clothes, in the bowl of nuts, on cushions, people’s hands, just absolutely everywhere.
It seems we’ve certainly been doing the right thing when we’ve been hand sanitising, mask wearing and deep cleaning. With a bit of luck we’ve seen the worst of Covid and it will creep away and hide itself in some dark corner once again.