In this time of worry and self-isolation, it is easy to think that viruses are our enemies. And of course, it’s true that some of them are. Sars, Mers, Ebola, HIV, swine flu, bird flu and Zika are among those that have caused deadly outbreaks in recent years – but the list is very long.
However, it’s also true that the vast majority of viruses do not infect human beings at all, or even mammals. And many of these viruses could actually be good for us, either by promoting our health or saving us from other diseases.
It’s easy to forget that most life is microscopic. And, just like viruses specific to mammals infect mammalian cells, a multitude of viruses have evolved to be experts at infecting the cells of bacteria. These viruses are called bacteriophages (or phages, for short).
Antibiotics usually kill a broad range of bacteria, often including the ones that benefit us as well as the disease-causing organism we want to kill. But a phage can be used with precision, like a programmed bullet that only seeks out the invading bacterium.
This is particularly important because immunodeficiency viruses have become experts at hiding from their host’s immune system by mutating, making it very hard for the body to develop a defence on its own. This work has huge implications for HIV treatment in the future.
It is easy to take a viral infection personally, attributing malice and cruelty to an unwelcome biological phenomenon. But the actions of a virus are, in many respects, as indifferent as the weather. And just like accurate weather forecasting can save lives, understanding the multifaceted nature of viruses in our world can also save lives.
It is the effective development and use of vaccines, after all, that has nullified the catastrophic effects of some of the world’s deadliest infections. Knowing how a virus spreads and how it operates can also inform government policy and allow us to behave in ways that keep us safe.
So, when dealing with those viruses that are, in a very real sense, our enemies, it is better to meet them with understanding rather than with fear. For those of us who feel that particular viruses are evil, even metaphorically, we should remember the words of Carl Jung: “Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, inasmuch as one can cope with a comprehensible darkness.”