Things You Need to Know About Viruses

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

The world is learning more about how certain viruses spread in speed and how long they can linger.

Virus-laden droplets may infect an area for several hours, depending on where they fall. Viruses generally remain active longer on stainless steel, plastic and similar hard surfaces than on fabric and other soft surfaces, according to the Mayor Clinic.

Other factors, such as the amount of virus deposited on a surface and the temperature and humidity of the environment, also determine how long viruses stay active outside the body.

“When you think of what we are going through now, people really need to do their research on what happened in the 1918 pandemic,” said physician Shauna Zorich, clinical assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo. “That was unprecedented, and we are currently living in those times now. We are using similar solutions such as closing bars, restaurants and limiting social interaction. The 1918 pandemic was extremely devastating, but they were successful in decreasing the spread so that is why we need to take everything seriously now.”

Zorich discusses five key elements of viruses.

1. Social distancing is essential to stop some viruses

Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least six feet away from other people lessens the chances of catching COVID-19.

“There are some viruses that are spread via the airborne route. This means the virus can remain in the air for several hours and can travel distances. A good example of an airborne virus is measles, which is why it is so contagious,” said Zorich. “Other viruses will only be transmitted in close quarters, which is the case with the novel coronavirus. If an infected individual remains six feet or more from another person, the less likely the infected person is able to transmit the virus to the next person. That’s the reason it makes sense to shut down schools, restaurants and have people work from home.”

2. Viruses cause a wide range of illness

Viruses can cause a wide range of illness in humans. They can be anything from subtle to deadly. Various viruses can cause headaches, chills, vomiting or more serious problems.

“Viruses can cause mild diseases like the common cold but also more serious disease such as smallpox, polio and Ebola,” said Zorich. “Poliovirus causes paralysis in about one of every 200 people infected. Ebola kills on average one of every two people infected. The bottom line is that some viruses can cause very serious disease.”

3. Viruses can live on objects

The length of time a virus can survive on a surface will be dependent upon the type of virus and the surface involved.

“For example, the flu virus has the potential to live on infected surfaces for up to 48 hours. This means that the flu virus could live on inanimate objects that others may be touching as well,” she added. “Viruses can live on objects like doorknobs, sink faucets and computer mouses so that is why we have to make sure to constantly disinfect these surfaces.”

4. Viruses are different from bacteria

One important distinction between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotic drugs can be used to kill bacteria, but they aren’t effective against viruses. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections. Diseases caused by viruses include chickenpox, AIDS and the common cold.

“Viruses are made up of genetic material and are surrounded by a coat of fat and proteins. They are not cellular like bacteria,” said Zorich. “It is important to note that viruses can only survive inside a host cell. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not help you recover.”

5. Finding a vaccine

Many have wondered, with COVID-19 being an issue first overseas for months, why hasn’t an established vaccine been created and distributed to the public? Well, it is not that easy. There is a process through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that involves different scientific trials before it is given to the general population. It first starts with bench research to identify the correct components of the vaccine. Then there are tests on animals and then you start the first phase on a few dozen people.

“Then if all goes well, you do a second phase on hundreds of people and then a third phase on thousands of people,” said Zorich. “We can’t offer a vaccine to millions of people without first identifying potential side effects. We must make sure that vaccine is safe and that takes time.”

Vaccines have been pivotal in helping illnesses such as Hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and HIV.

Photo: Physician Shauna Zorich, clinical assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo.