To Live or Not to Live: The Eccentric Journey of a Virus

We are all aware of the current pandemic that is shaking our world. In such time of crisis, it is not uncommon to panic. The plethora of information on social media and TV doesn’t exactly ease our anxiety. To ease our nerves: What exactly is a virus? Where does it come from? Most importantly, what does it want?

A virus is a parasite that needs a host for reproduction. And frankly speaking, that is all it ever does. Living cells are able to eat, grow and reproduce. They have a metabolic system, they have genetic codes for reproduction, they have transport systems for digestion and excretion. Whether or not a virus is alive is debatable based on one’s definition of life. That, however, does not change the peculiar nature of viruses. While animal cells, plant cells and even bacteria, are living and dying, viruses are on another plane of existence. Viruses, even the complex ones, only have genetic code and protective covers. They are also extremely tiny.

So, how do those tiny parasites cause such commotion?
Well the answer is in the question itself. They are tiny and they are not living. That means we cannot kill them, unlike other disease-causing microbes. Our best bet is to destroy their protective coat before they enter our bodies, which explains washing our hands frequently. After entering a host, a virus attaches itself onto a cell and injects its genetic material into that cell. The host cell is then instructed by the genetic code to produce necessary materials for making new viruses. After they hijacked the cell and reproduce, the viruses will either burst the cell or drill through it and move on to infect other cells. They usually end up killing the cell.

What effects do viruses have on human beings?
Pandemics are not new to society. The earliest record of Smallpox, a viral infection, is believed to date back to 3rd century BC. Influenza, AIDS, Swine flu, Bird flu and Ebola are just some of the viral infections that have left their marks on history. The obvious effect of such a wide spread disease is the staggering amount of death toll. It wipes out portions of society in a short time. For instance, the Spanish flu that affected the entire world infected a quarter of the world’s population and killed about 50 million of them.

The effect on the economy could be devastating; businesses, especially service sectors shut down. The healthcare system goes under immense stress and unemployment rate undoubtedly spikes. If pandemics are not controlled immediately they lead to recession. It does not stop there! The “unspoken” social problems – depression, anxiety and domestic violence will knock on each household. The strain of being cooped up doing same mundane things day in and day out causes what they call “cabin fever.”

Human civilization has come so far! How are we still not able to contain infections?
Yes, we have certainly come a long way. In early times, a plague was believed to have been caused by daemons and bad spirits. Human beings’ best bet was to pray to their respective gods and stigmatize against an infected individual. We are now able to see those so called microbes and treat most bacterial infections. But viruses and bacteria don\’t just sit around waiting to be eradicated. They mutate, evolve and become resistant to our existing stock of medications or change enough to cross species and start attacking other animals.

We have developed a weapon against microorganisms and viruses: vaccination. A vaccine is a dead, weakened or part of the disease-causing organism or virus. It helps our immune system fight an infectious disease by basically giving our body a trial version. When the vaccine enters our body, our immune system will go into defense mode and produces antibodies.

Antibodies are protein structures used to neutralize an attack from pathogens. Viruses have certain structures on their surface that they use to “unlock” cells and enter. Antibodies are designed in such a way that the “key” of the virus will fit the “lock” of the antibody, tricking the virus into thinking it has scored.

When we are exposed to a new infection, our body needs time to produce antibodies for the new virus. Vaccines give our body that time. So when we get the actual infection, our body already knows exactly which type of antibody to produce.

Let us talk about women.
Time and again, I have encountered people that use biology to justify the superiority of men. Men are physically strong; men are big and muscular. We are supposed to submit to that might and height and keep our mouth shut. But now, genetics is on our side. There is ample research on how women have better, stronger immune system than men. The reason behind this is in our DNA. Women have two X-chromosomes while men have one X and one Y chromosome. This difference is what determines our sex. The X-chromosome is responsible for, among other things, the immune system. This double X in our genetic code has given us the advantage of having a stronger immune system than men.

We have said so much about viruses, their impact and how our body defends itself. We have also talked about how women have an advantage over men when it comes to the immune system. Armed with this knowledge, how do we react to this pandemic? In his famous book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” The point of having knowledge on such matters is to understand how we can best protect ourselves. We should be alert, cautious and informed about the underlining cause.

Written by: Hellina Hailu Nigatu