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Just What Is a Virus?

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COVID-19 has made viruses front-page news on a daily basis, but how many of us understand what they actually are? Is a virus alive or not? How do viruses work? How do they fit into the scheme of God’s creation?

Although it is clear that the Almighty has not yet revealed to us every detail about His marvelous creation (cf. Proverbs 25:2), we can nevertheless understand a great deal about these microscopic menaces that have generated such gigantic news. While the details of their origin remain mysterious, their current role in our world is all too painfully clear. And yet, they may hint at something more.

Let’s take a closer look.

What Is a Virus?

Are viruses “alive”? It depends on how we define “life.” Viruses do not generally satisfy all of the criteria most biologists use to determine whether something is alive, though the point is debated in some quarters.

Bacteria—microscopic, one-celled organisms—clearly possess attributes associated with living things. For instance, they can fully metabolize food sources for energy, and they can reproduce themselves. Viruses, however, cannot fully accomplish either of these tasks and require the machinery of a host cell both to provide energy for their machinery to work and to build more viruses.

It is in accomplishing this second task—using our cells to reproduce themselves—that viruses become such a source of misery for us.

In one way, the success of viruses is a tribute to the ingenious design of life’s “operating system” and the power of the programming language represented by life’s genetic code. Just as human computer languages—say, C++ or Java—can be used to accomplish many different tasks, so too can the genetic code expressed in DNA and RNA molecules accomplish many purposes. (See “The Miracle of DNA” in our May-June 2013 issue for more details.) Much like their computer namesakes, viruses carry new bits of code that “reprogram” a cell to become a virus-making factory.

The basic structure of most viruses is straightforward: a protein shell of some sort, called a capsid, and strands of DNA or RNA contained within the capsid. Though the structure may be straightforward, there is a vast amount of variety in the virus world. Some viruses are simple, like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—its structure is simply a sphere surrounded by protein “spikes” that give the virus its name (corona is Latin for “crown”). The “spikes” attach to receptors on certain cells in our body, giving the virus access to the interior of those cells.

Viruses can also have a more complex structure. For example, bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—could easily be mistaken for spiders on an alien planet, with spindly “legs” and a protein casing that looks like a stalk holding up a large “head.”

Regardless of the structure, the function of each virus is essentially the same: Gain access to the inner workings of the host cell and insert new programming to create more viruses.

That new programming tells the cell’s machinery to begin relentlessly creating copies of the virus—a process that often causes the cell to burst and release new copies of the virus, ready to infect additional cells. Before its death, one single cell can be used by some viruses to produce tens of thousands of new viruses.

Our immune systems are designed to combat these invaders by capturing and destroying the viruses directly, or by destroying the cells they have “commandeered.” (More information about our remarkable immune system can be read in our March-April 2018 article “The War Beneath Your Skin,” available online at TomorrowsWorld.org.) Yet, the battle between viruses and our immune systems can sometimes cause a lot of collateral damage, and, in some cases, the most harmful effects of an infection can come from the side effects of that battle.

Where Do Viruses Come From?

New strains of viruses can arise in many ways. If a host is infected with more than one kind of virus, those viruses’ genes can “mix and match” to create a brand-new virus. The bodies of pigs, in particular, are optimal biological environments for virus-mixing, and the H1N1 “swine flu” strain that caused a pandemic in 2009 is believed to have been caused by such swapping among human, bird, and pig viruses.

That’s how viruses mutate. But there is a deeper mystery: Where did viruses originally come from? Scientists are at a loss on the question. Viruses defy most biologists’ attempts to easily or comfortably account for their origins within the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Some see viruses’ simplicity as evidence they must have evolved before cells, while others point to the “chicken and the egg” problem this represents: If viruses cannot reproduce without cells, how could they exist before cells?

In fact, even for those who recognize that the origin of our world is found in an omnipotent Creator, viruses remain a mystery. Why did God create viruses? It would not be reasonable to believe that our Creator intended them solely to cause harm—after all, before He rested from His creative acts, He declared the creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But there are several explanations that would be very consistent with God’s word. For instance, in and of itself, viruses’ ability to inject genetic material is not harmful. In fact, many medical researchers are exploring viruses as tools to deliver helpful genetic information into patients requiring gene therapy. It is possible that virus-like mechanisms and structures may have originally served a maintenance or repair role in life’s design. Yet this is only speculation. Much we do not know of the world will one day be revealed, but, for now, we only “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Cursed, But Not Forever!

Regardless of what good viruses could have served in the wonderful natural order God created, the curse our first parents brought upon the world with their sin had an impact on all of creation. As God explained to Adam and Eve, the sin-stained world would not be a pleasant one for them. The ground would not simply yield food for them to eat, but also “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), as it became a hostile environment suffering under “the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:20–22)—a world, in the famous words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “red in tooth and claw.”

Whatever beneficial purpose viruses could have served in the natural order, they seem to serve that beneficial purpose no longer—at least not without great cost. But the world will not always be filled with pain and suffering. God tells us through the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah that a better time is coming. Predators and prey will no longer be at odds, but will instead graze peacefully together, and the creation itself will be transformed to experience the peace that now escapes it (Isaiah 11:6–8). Of this time, the Eternal One declares, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).

The day is coming when infectious waves of virus-borne diseases will yield to the spread of something far more powerful: the healing power of God and the glorious hope of a world free of disease—blessings that will flow from the very throne of God and Jesus Christ the Lamb (Revelation 22:1–3). May God speed that day!

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