Coronavirus gives the virus family a bad name

Most viruses are benign and some are even lifesaving. Only a few cause panic and fear.

Bacteriophage, Image from

We are literally immersed in viruses. A UBC professor has discovered that billions of them rain down on us daily. Curtis Suttle, co-author of the study found their source. He was initially puzzled as to why the same viruses are found everywhere on Earth.

“We found the same viruses pretty much everywhere in the planet,” Suttle told CBC radio’s Quirks & Quarks. “We would find the same viruses in a meltwater pond in the Arctic Ocean, or in the Gulf of Mexico, or in a lake in Germany. It was puzzling to use because we wouldn’t expect the same host organisms to exist in all those different environments (December 28, 2018).”

He found that the viruses are swept up from deserts and oceans and carried aloft to altitudes of 3,000 metres where they cross continents and rain down upon the earth in a microbial deluge, largely unseen and unnoticed by humans.

Suttle and his colleagues found that more than 800 million viruses per square metre are deposited into the atmosphere every day. Before his study was released, it was thought that this area of the atmosphere was pristine.

If you like to swim in the ocean, as I do, you might find the following a little unsettling. The average concentration of viruses in seawater is billions in every millilitre of water. “So for every time you go swimming, just for the water you take into your mouth, you swallow more viruses than there are people in North America,” said Suttle.

But be assured that the billions of viruses are doing good work there. They kill 40 per cent of the oceans bacteria daily. Yes, almost one-half of the bacteria are eliminated which controls their population and keeps the Earth’s oxygen from being depleted.

And the viruses you breathe in kill some of the bacteria that you also inhale.

This ability of viruses to kill bacteria is a lifesaver for people who have become resistant to antibiotics. The viruses are called bacteriophages, or phages for short.

The number of patients who are multidrug-resistant (MDR) is growing as infections become resistant to antibiotics. MDR infections are rapidly growing into public health nightmare. At least 700,000 people die annually and the United Nations predict that the numbers could rise to 10 million by 2050 (Scientific American, November, 2019).

Where antibiotics also kill useful bacteria in a shotgun approach, phages target specific bacteria. They attach to the cell wall of the bacteria and insert their genetic material into the cell through a syringe-like appendage. The phage then highjacks the bacteria’s reproductive machinery and making multiple copies of itself, ripping the bacteria apart.

The bacteria-fighting properties of phages have been known since 1910 where they reportedly reduced wartime mortality from gangrene. But after antibiotics became the drug of choice, investigation of phages waned.

Don’t go to your doctor looking for phage medications. Lack of research has limited their use but as the number of MDR cases rises, research will accelerate.

So, don’t tar all viruses with the Coronavirus brush. Their life-saving applications will almost certainly grow, saving more lives than they kill.

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