Strange Careers in Science: Virus Hunters and What They Do

The world of microbes is both insidious and fascinating. From drug-resistant bacteria to the new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19)—they can plunge the entire human race into chaos on an unprecedented scale.

But, thanks to virus hunters, considerable work is being devoted to protecting us from infectious diseases. These hardworking professionals have to deal with the tedious tasks of understanding viruses, preventing infections, creating vaccines and more, while we are busy hoarding toilet papers and hand sanitizers.

What does a virus hunter do?

Virus hunting is not a job for a single person. The process is very complicated and involves a variety of disciplines and specialties. The team may include a virologist, pathologist, epidemiologist, and other scientists and technicians. A virologist, the one who studies viruses, can be a scientist/researcher, a doctor or all of the above.

During a viral disease outbreak, the first step is to identify the germ that causes it. The team will gather blood and tissue samples (as well as saliva or urine) from infected persons or animals to be studied in the laboratory. 

Once the virus has been identified, a vaccine, if available, can be given to the vulnerable population. If it’s not available, then the team has to create one. 

Now let’s take a look at some of the deadliest diseases that virus hunters have fought through the years.

SARS 

The epidemiologist Dr. Carlo Urbani was the first WHO official to identify SARS in 2003. Unfortunately, he developed symptoms of SARS while attending a press conference in Bangkok. He died a month later. The epidemic lasted for over 100 days.

Yellow Fever 

The Yellow Fever Commission, headed by Dr. Waler Reed, found out that a certain type of mosquito was spreading the disease. A vaccine was developed in 1937 by a scientist named Max Theiler. While the fever is still out there, it is not as common as it used to be. 

Smallpox 

Eradication of the highly infectious smallpox was achieved in 1980 through a global immunization campaign. It is not clear how it started. But thanks to English physician Edward Jenner, the first vaccine ever was introduced in 1796 and smallpox successfully disappeared from hospital wards. 

Poliomyelitis (Polio)

Polio, also known as infantile paralysis, is another deadly viral disease which is no longer a worldwide problem. A doctor at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk, was the first to develop a successful vaccine against polio. Though it has not been totally wiped out, it no longer occurs in the U.S. and several other countries. 

Virus hunters have grappled with a number of deadly superbugs over the last three centuries. As new virulent viruses are emerging, their work is far from over. Do you want to be a virus hunter? Find out how you can pursue a degree in virology here

Image credit: Kat Masback / Creative Commons License.

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