Are there any viruses that are good for us? Any that might rejuvenate a liver, improve the digestion, smooth the skin, in addition to those that bring us polio, smallpox, Lyme, HIV, and the flu? Some bacteria, after all, digest our food even while others cause botulism and strep throat. Viruses come in plenty of varieties. Aren’t any of them, like some bacteria, welcome or even necessary to our health?
On the face of it, no. The basic action of viruses is destructive. These strips of DNA or RNA, enclosed in protein, don’t maintain a metabolism, can’t produce new protein, and can’t reproduce on their own. They are not alive—not as the term is usually defined. Viruses do only one thing that living cells do: they evolve, as we know from requiring a new flu vaccine each year. But although a virus can’t reproduce by itself, it knows enough to insert itself into a living cell’s DNA, forcing it to make a new virus. The vocabulary describing this process is military and agressive: the virus ‘takes over,’ ‘high-jacks,’ ‘subjugates’ or ‘commandeers’ the cell. The original cell continues to make viruses, or it withers, or it bursts. The living cell dwindles; the half-alive thing flourishes.
For comparison, bacteria are living, single-cell organisms. They seek food and process it. They divide into two bacteria on their own. Because they are alive, bacteria can be killed— by antibiotics, by the body’s immune system, or even by particular viruses (bacteriophages, “bacteria-eaters”) that attack bacteria.
But viruses can not be killed in the same sense. They have no metabolism to disrupt. Instead, anti-viral medications disrupt and slow down their ability to usurp a healthy cell’s genome. But that takes time. If a weakened virus (such as a piece of one) is injected as a vaccine early enough, the immune system gets a head-start on preparing enough antibodies to stop the virus in its tracks. Maybe. If a virus morphs and vaccines don’t work, pandemic looms.
So viruses are “good” for us only if they ruin cells that are ones we want to get rid of. If a cell is a cancer cell in the lung, breast, pancreas, or prostate, then bravo for the virus that bursts it. And bravo for the virus that destroys the bacteria that cause tuberculosis or cholera.
There is another way in which viruses can do good deeds. They are specialists at transporting their genetic material into a cell’s genome. So biologists use them to insert corrected DNA into a patient’s genes. Such gene therapy can cure inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. So, bravo again!–not for the virus, but for the researchers that put a strange tool to good use.
Viral replication seems to me a perversion of life’s ability to reproduce. Reproduction, perhaps the essential process of living things, is co-opted by a genetic strip to reproduce its lifelessness at the expense of the healthy cell.
Such depravity is the stuff of horror movies. In Rosemary’s Baby and the Alien films, demons and aliens find human bodies to breed in. Most of all, viruses make me think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A post-war trope of McCarthyist paranoia and mindless conformity, Invasion tells of townspeople becoming “not themselves” as mysterious pods placed near bedrooms ripen to replace humans with look-alike automatons that mindlessly collaborate to distribute more pods. At film’s ends, despite efforts to warn the nation, truck-loads of pods roll on to cities, with no guarantee that the outbreak can be stopped.