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'Are Viruses Living Things?'

covid monster
By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNJuly 17, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

COVID-19 symptoms may vary widely (if they show up at all), but when it comes to the way a severe COVID illness actually feels, many survivors describe it the same way:  

It’s almost like there’s this monster inside of you

A horror show monster

The virus is a monster trying to kill you,”

With so many people referring to the coronavirus as a “monster,” it might make you wonder if viruses are actual living things.

Scientists say they are not.

In science, we generally define a “living thing” as an organism with a metabolism (chemical process that keep the organism alive) that can grow, reproduce, and respond when stimulated. Viruses do not have a metabolism and cannot grow or respond when stimulated.

They can reproduce, however. In fact, that’s what their entire existence seems to be about: making copies of themselves.

But viruses can’t reproduce on their own. To multiply, they require a host organism. For SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), that host organism is human beings.

When a virus like SARS-CoV-2 enters a host cell, a series of complex chemical reactions occur that give the virus the ability to reproduce. The effects of this viral reproduction, and our immune response to it, cause the signs and symptoms of disease. For example, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus starts to reproduce in our cells, our body responds with fever as our immune system ramps up to attack the virus, coughing as immune cells do battle with the virus in the lungs, and fatigue as the body devotes maximum energy to fighting the virus.

But reproducing seems to be a purely chemical-based event, not something that the virus can do voluntarily. Viruses are not “alive” and cannot travel on their own to infect people. For instance, viruses cannot willfully exit the human body and crawl or fly into another person. Viruses can only move from person to person when an existing host transfers the virus by coughing, sneezing, or otherwise shedding the virus onto another individual.

That’s why it’s so important to wear face coverings and stay at least six feet away from other people right now. If we avoid transmitting the virus to other people, we deprive the virus of host bodies. And if we deprive it of host bodies, SARS-CoV-2 cannot survive. Right now, that might be our best bet for defeating this “monster.”




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