What is a virus? Is it a living thing or a non living thing?
In an article published in Scientific American, back in 2008, Luis P Villarreal, Professor of molecular biology at the University of California, Irvine said,
“For about 100 years, the scientific community has repeatedly changed its collective mind over what viruses are. First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving”
Most biologists don’t agree with Professor Villareal. They are resolute in classifying a virus such as the covid-19 as a non living thing. Their argument, according to Khan Academy, a global free education platform, is anchored on the following:
“Viruses are not made out of cells, they can’t keep themselves in a stable state, they don’t grow, and they can’t make their own energy. Even though they definitely replicate and adapt to their environment, viruses are more like androids than real living organisms”
A scientific source compared a virus to a seed. Is a seed a living thing? No. But what happens when a seed comes in contact with moisture, it comes alive and grows into a plant. But then, even when a virus comes alive, it is still not an independent life form.
Here is how one scientist described a virus;
“I don’t think viruses qualify as being alive. They are, in essence, inert unless they come into contact with a living cell”
Another scientist said,
“Without a cell, a virus cannot reproduce. And so from that standpoint, it’s really not alive, if you consider life to be something that can reproduce by itself independently. However, if you loosen up your definition of life to something that can make copies of itself with help, then you could call it alive.”
The above conclusions mean that if, for example, you keep a virus on a table, it will remain there until it disintegrate, without doing any harm, as it can not move, for example, in search of a host like say a mosquito flies into your house looking for you and your delicious blood.
So what happens when a virus gets into your body through your nose, mouth or eyes?
Professor Villarreal mentioned above, quoting the work of Nobel Laureate, Wendell Stanley and his colleagues said:
“A virus consists of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) enclosed in a protein coat that may also shelter viral proteins involved in infection. By that description, a virus seems more like a chemistry set than an organism. But when a virus enters a cell (called a host after infection), it is far from inactive. It sheds its coat, bares its genes and induces the cell’s own replication machinery to reproduce the intruder’s DNA or RNA and manufacture more viral protein based on the instructions in the viral nucleic acid. The newly created viral bits assemble and, voilà, more virus arises, which also may infect other cells.
If a virus isn’t alive, does that affect how we deal with viral infections? “Absolutely” said Khan Academy;
“Antibiotics, for example, are used to treat bacterial infections, and are useless at dealing with a viral infection like the flu or chickenpox. Antibiotics target certain parts of bacteria in the hopes of killing them; with viruses it’s hard to kill something that isn’t quite alive to begin with. Instead of destroying the virus, antiviral medicines try to shut off the replication cycle, like shutting down the android production line.”
From what Khan Academy said, those who are busy touting the chewing of ginger and garlic or quaffing chloroquine have no idea how a virus operates and how doctors deal with it once it gets into a human. It is an intricate game which also counts on plain luck. For some individuals, infection is a mere slap on the wrist. For others, it is a “chemo war” of life and death.
Why is a virus “scared” of a common toilet soap?
A pair of hands that appear clean might actually be swarming with bacteria and viruses. And when you touch your nose, mouth or eyes, they glide into your body cells and start a biological and chemical war.
When you use running water and soap to wash your hands, here is what happens.
A virus is made up of two parts, a protein and a covering layer call lipid (some kind of fatty material). When a soap gets into a virus, it washes away the fatty part of the virus and renders it inactive, that is incapable of infecting. The running water ensure that both the fatty part and the protein part glide off your hands. And voila, you are free.
In an article published in Market Watch on March 14, 2020, Professor Palli Thordarson of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney made this outstanding conclusion:
“Disinfectants, or liquids, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have a similar effect but are not as good as regular soap. Apart from alcohol and soap, antibacterial agents in those products don’t affect the virus structure much. Consequently, many antibacterial products are basically just an expensive version of soap in how they act on viruses. Soap is the best, but alcohol wipes are good when soap is not practical or handy, for example in office reception areas.”
There you have it. Among the many things that may attract your fancy in the fight against covid-19, biko, do the simple one that is universally proven to be effective: wash your hands with soap and running water regularly.