Viruses have busy social lives that we could manipulate to defeat them

The coronavirus and others are no lone wolves, they cooperate and compete with one another. Understanding these social interactions could help us fight them

Health 21 October 2020
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Ronald Kurniawan

IF YOUR social life has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, you may not want to know that the virus has a social life too. And it is probably better than yours right now.

It may seem odd to say that viruses fraternise when they arguably aren’t even alive, but virologists are discovering just how rich this aspect of their existence is. Far from being lone operators, viruses cooperate and compete with one another; they can be altruists, freeloaders or cheats. These discoveries are rewriting the virus rule book and suggesting novel ways to tackle viral diseases, and that includes the newest one, covid-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2. Understanding these complex and sometimes strange interactions could be the key to getting our own lives back to normal.

The classical view of a viral infection doesn’t create much opportunity for social interaction. A single virus particle, or virion, encounters a target cell and breaks and enters. Once inside, it disassembles like a cat burglar unpacking tools and then executes its potentially deadly genetic program.

This program is designed to do one thing: build an army of virus clones to move on to the next victim. To this end, the virus requisitions the cell’s protein and genome production facilities, churning out millions of copies of its constituent parts. These viral genomes and proteins assemble into virus particles and, once they reach a critical mass, disgorge out of the host cell, killing it in the process. The infection cycle then begins anew.

This view isn’t wrong, but is vastly simplified. Viral attacks are rarely solo missions. “The virion has been traditionally viewed as the minimal viral infectious unit,” says …

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