Standard image of the new scientist

Viruses have busy social lives that we could manipulate to defeat them

The coronavirus and others are not lonely wolves, they cooperate and compete with each other. Understanding these social interactions could help us combat them

health


October 21, 2020

By Graham Lawton

IF YOUR social life suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, you may not want to know that the virus has social life too. And it's probably better than yours now.

It might seem strange to say that viruses fraternize when they're not even alive, but virologists are discovering how rich this aspect of their existence is. Viruses are not sole proprietorships; they cooperate and compete with one another. They can be altruists, freeloaders, or scammers. These discoveries are rewriting the rulebook for viruses, suggesting new ways to fight viral diseases, including the newest, covid-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2. Understanding these complex and sometimes strange interactions could be key to getting our own lives back to normal.

The classic view of a viral infection doesn't offer much opportunity for social interaction. A single virus particle or virion hits a target cell and breaks and enters. Once inside, like a cat burglar unpacking tools, it decomposes and then executes its potentially fatal genetic program.

This program is designed to do one thing: build an army of virus clones to move on to the next victim. To do this, the virus needs the cell's protein and genome production facilities and produces millions of copies of its components. These viral genomes and proteins assemble into virus particles and, as soon as they have reached a critical mass, detach from the host cell, killing them in the process. The infection cycle then begins again.

This view is not wrong, but it is greatly simplified. Viral attacks are rarely single missions. "The virion has traditionally been viewed as the minimal viral unit of infection," says …