How Viruses Work, part 1: Structure
Viruses aren’t alive.
After a year of personifying the enemy, it can be hard to truly internalize this. When the Wall Street Journal calls it “THE CORONAVIRUS THAT OUTSMARTED SCIENCE” and the Seattle Times refers to it as ‘wily’ and ‘patient’, while in national policy and casual conversation alike we militarize the pandemic with talk of “battling COVID” and “front-line workers”, it’s easy to think of SARS-CoV-2 as a scheming opponent. Not only does it make communicating about the pandemic easier, it’s a bit of an ego-saver— if we can put people on the moon and invent iPhones and write symphonies, then the thing that brings it all grinding to a halt has got to be one hell of a powerful entity. But a virus doesn’t even have a brain.
Viruses don’t have much of anything, really. A small tangle of nucleic acid encased in enough protein to keep stable and move through the world for a short while, sometimes adorned with a layer of borrowed membrane. A virion — the word for a single virus particle — has (for the most part) no real subunits or internal structure, no moving parts, no internal processes. Viruses have no metabolism; they don’t eat or even have a way to process energy. They don’t age or die; they’re either structurally intact, or they’ve degraded. Sanitizing products are technically misleading — you can’t kill a virus so much as break it.
A virion, in other words, is as alive as my parked car — not very. Until there’s a human around with the parts and know-how to put in some gas and get the thing running, it’s just going to sit there. Left out long enough, or exposed to the wrong substances, it will rust away and become impossible to drive, but it won’t exactly die.
This simplicity is what gives the virus its power. Because a virus is not an agent with goals and motives so much as a mindless, happenstance beneficiary of our proliferation. Viruses are the gum on the shoes of cellular life, along for the ride — because the one thing they’re good at is being sticky, and we wonder why they’re there, but if they weren’t sticky we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place, and all the other non-sticky things were left behind a while ago. It’s tiny, it’s low-tech, but every aspect of its structure helps it hitch a ride across the planet.
Up next I’ll be covering what happens when a virus meets a cell, why this structure is so perfect for replicating, and how these mindless particles go from inert to deadly.
But for today — cars and gum, viruses are dumb.