Did you know viruses are not alive?

Viruses are responsible for some of the world’s most dangerous and deadly diseases, including influenza, ebola, rabies, smallpox, and COVID-19. Despite their potential to kill, these potent pathogens are in fact considered to be non-living, as alive as the screen that you are reading this article on.

How is this possible? How can something as nasty as a virus spread so fast, reproduce, and infect other living things, but not be considered a living creature? The answer has been a subject of debate since the moment viruses were first named in 1898.

The argument hinges on…

What do we mean by ‘alive’?

There is no single undisputed definition of life. Some of the more common questions to distinguish between living and non-living things are Does it have its own biological ‘machinery’ to replicate? Does it multiply through cellular division? Does it have a metabolism?

For each of these questions, viruses receive a fail.

Why don’t they fit the bill?

In order to replicate, viruses must first hijack the reproductive equipment of a host cell. Then redirecting it to ‘photocopy’ the genetic code of the virus and seal it inside a newly formed container, known as the capsid. Without a host cell, they simply can’t replicate.

They fail the second question for the same reason. Unlike other living organisms that can self-divide, splitting a single cell into two, viruses must ‘assemble’ themselves by taking control of the host cell, which manufactures and assembles the viral components.

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