Zika Virus: Unlikely to Kill, Impossible to be Killed

By Josh Bloom — Jan 26, 2016
While many viruses create fear, the Zika virus is scarier in some ways because it affects unborn children and causes severe birth defects. While it rarely kills, it cannot be killed, because it isn't alive in the first place. No virus is. And except for supportive treatment, there isn't much that medicine can do about them.

ZikaOutbreaks of "new" viruses are nothing new. What is new is the ability of people to travel more easily than ever before. This gives these viruses golden opportunities to find a new audience, and viruses love new audiences. (Well, they can't really "love" anything, since, despite all the havoc they wreak upon the world, they aren't even alive. More on that later.)

There have been several "new" outbreaks in recent years, and they are all scary in different ways. While the viruses are not new, they are new to geographical areas. Some are real doozies, and with the exception of supportive treatment, there isn't much that medicine can do about them. A few examples.

  • West Nile: Same family as yellow fever and hepatitis C. Spread by mosquitos. Usually not deadly, with the exception of those with compromised immune systems, something that we know all too well at the Council. Can be controlled by killing mosquitos.
  • Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE): This one is also transmitted by mosquitos, but is far more scary. It will kill about one-third of those who are infected. Fortunately, it is still quite rare in the United States.
  • Dengue: Before 1970, dengue was confined to nine countries. Now, the WHO estimates that half of the world is at risk. It is still rare in the U.S., but there have been outbreaks. The mortality rate ranges from 1-20 percent, depending on the availability of supportive care, mainly rehydration. Spread by mosquitos.
  • Chikungunya: Another nasty fellow. Similar symptoms, but not as severe as dengue fever. It will not kill you, but you may wish it did. It arrived in the U.S. in 2013. Also spread by mosquitos.


Electron microscopy image of the West Nile Virus (Keranews.org)

(Note to environmentalists: Before you start screaming about how pesticides are killing us -- they aren't -- you might want to examine both sides of the equation. All of these "new" viral infections are spread by mosquitos. So please answer the following: What is the cost of not spraying? This answer is, unfortunately, already available: Africa. Malaria, which is also spread by mosquitos, kills thousands of people every day. How many deaths would have been prevented by more aggressive use of pesticides? You tell me.)

Now there is Zika, which is scarier in some ways, since it affects unborn children, and causes severe birth defects. It rarely kills, but it cannot be killed. Why? Because it isn't alive in the first place. No virus is.

Although this debate has been going on for years, I don't buy it, but others do, mostly because there is no universal definition of what "alive" means. However, I think it is clear that viruses are not alive. Rather, they are exquisitely designed infectious agents that are little more than a "sophisticated bag of chemicals."

Viruses are "obligate parasites," which means that they replicate inside a host cell, and use the normal growth machinery of the cell to do so. In the absence of a host cell they do nothing:

  • They neither take in nutrients, nor expel waste
  • They don't use or expend energy
  • They don't grow
  • They don't use oxygen (respiration)
  • They do not move on their own
  • They have evolved, but only when inside the host cells
  • They don't reproduce on their own
  • They don't like Junior's cheesecake

(OK, you probably figured out that I made that one up. But, let's see if you can walk past the damn place twice every day and not weigh 700 pounds. I am currently operating under the theory that the stuff was invented by Satan himself to ensure that the sin of gluttony does not cease to exist.)

So, it is technically incorrect to state that a drug or disinfectant "kills" a virus. It deactivates, or destroys it.

When I return to this subject in the days ahead for Part 2, here's what we'll explore:

How do viruses work?

It is nothing short of amazing.


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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