Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why I Love Viruses……

I can bet that nine out of ten people reading the title will immediately think I am talking about computer viruses, worms and assorted online trash. No. I am not. What I am referring to is the original, the one and only, natural viruses, after which the malicious computer codes were named- in admiration, in fact. Now don’t get me wrong. Its not that I am some kind of apocalypse-loving death wish spouting crazy dude because I declare my love for viruses of the biological variety. But as someone who has dabbled a bit in the field of microbiology, in a purely amateur, aww shucks, this is soo interesting kind of way, I do love those nasty buggers, the viruses, those pieces of raw genetic information (incomplete code, for you computer-geeks to understand) which, once inside a host, voila, form a complete and virulent organism, capable of reproducing in millions…

The immediate reason for this post is two things which happened last week. The first one was, the UN declaring India Polio free, more about which later. And the second was the preemptory way we were ordered at the hospital to undergo swine-flu vaccination to prevent A1H1N1 (the swine-full viruses’ official designation) infection….i hope you sympathize with me, that I can swallow any number of pills but show me an injection needle and I will scream and run and hide. At least that’s what I used to do before I had to start learning to give 50 injections a day…of course to others. That kinda eased my discomfort with those sharp, long things, but I am still unable to overcome a tendency to close my eyes tightly when someone approaches me with a loaded syringe. So, given a choice I would gladly have taken my chance with swine-flu virus rather than the injection.

The reason, I say so, is not because I am extra brave or anything, it’s just that the news I am hearing about the swine-flu virus, THIS YEAR, is that it has mutated to such an extent compared to the previous year’s version, that although it is more infective now, with an increase in number of people infected even in summer while previously it dared not show its head out in the bright sunlight and waited for gloomy, rainy days, it appears to be attenuated (weakened) to a certain extent, with less deaths and number of people recovering more, with just a mild disease. The mutation means that the vaccine which was prepared for last year’s edition of the virus is just about equal to coloured water now in efficiency, but people still line up to get the shot purely for mental satisfaction. Because once you are infected, you have to wait for your body to organize itself and then clear the virus on its one- this is not bacteria, you cannot kill it with anti-biotics. This sonafabitch is a virus- too hard to kill.

Which brings me back to the polio virus. I have a special affinity to the polio virus because of the grief it caused me in my 2nd year Microbiology class. The topic for the lecture was Polio and I has as usual made my preparation before the class, so when the lecturer stated that the Salk vaccination, which is orally administered is better than the Sabin vaccine which is injectable, I stood up and contradicted her (I was yet to learn my survival lessons then). This kind of caused a flap and I was sent to the HOD to defend myself, who instructed me to report with the proofs of my assertion or not turn up at all, (remember, I was still a raw 2nd year student then -of a 5 year course).. so next class, I turned up before the the full inquisition board, the entire department and proved that my statement was correct, the injectable vaccine was more efficient (as it prevented infection even from wild strains seen in nature), but because the government could not afford to inject everyone, it promoted the easy to use Oral or Drop method vaccine for mass vaccination. It was just economics (economy of scale) triumphing over science. I was grudgingly vindicated and re-admitted in class.

So, when the UN declared that India was Polio-free I was intrigued until I read the report in detail, that says that there were no new infections of polio (in humans) which we means that the virus had no human host where it can show its villainy. Current evidence says that it survives exclusively in humans so the virus should have died a natural death by now. But has it? These are hardy little buggers and they can literally hide inside our very cells and strike when we are weak. I wouldn’t be popping the champagne anytime soon in our fight against the viruses. They were some of the earliest developed life forms on our planet and they make even the dinos seem a young species. We just have to learn to coexist with them and of course, develop efficient anti-virals to deal with infections. But that seems a tall order, twenty years after HIV erupted into public consciousness, we still don’t have an effective anti-viral to kill it. And HIV is a baby compared to what’s out there – Ebola, Hantu, WestNile river etc. 

If you are still with me, I can conclude only by saying that just like an archeologist gets excited by old bones, I get excited by these miniscule creatures who live all around us, inside us and affect everything we do, but which most of us have never given a second thought to. Respectable enemies they are, remember that next time you have a cold.


  1. wow...awesome dude...simply terrific...but i will be happy to see evidence of the claim that sabin injectable is more efficaceous than salk. Its a news to me. awesome blogging. Keep going :-)

  2. Very well written - informative, as well as interesting.

    They were some of the earliest developed life forms on our planet and they make even the dinos seem a young species.
    Hmmm. I'm not too sure if the above assertion is true. My reasoning being that viruses are not free-living organisms, and hence would require a host to live on. Bacteria should have pre-existed bacteriophages. Similarly humans / mammals etc should have arrived before viruses that infect humans/animals. Of course cross species/ cross genus transmission of viruses cannot be ruled out.


    PS: With your kind of interest in Biology and genetics (which I would say is rare in Doctors) I'm surprised that you haven't taken up a career in Molecular Biology / Immunology / Microbiology.

    1. Hmmm!!! interesting comment of yours...did viruses precede bacteria or not? and can they have developed before their hosts developed? cant rally say -i guess... the origins of life in the primordial soup is pretty much obscure as to the precise order of evolution. but what about panspermia theory? cant viruses along with other microorganisms been seeded to us from somewhere else? they seem to be pretty hardy creatures and could have survived the extra-solar journey in better shape than others precisely because of lack of cell wall/membrane...

  3. I guess that there is speculation that viruses could be 'rogue DNA / RNA' that started getting a life of their own - much like cancerous cells.

    1. and there is another popular theory that slow degenerative diseases like Alzheimer are actually viral diseases..have you heard of it? that a lot of viruses have integrated with our DNA that we are basically a mix of human and viral genes....
      p.s. to answer your question on why i dint try molecular bio/immuno...the true reason would be that ever since my original research was stolen/plagiarized by my Pg guide- i have developed an aversion to research.. and to the Indian research system in general...decided to just sticking to making money like everyone else around me...