What are Viruses?

Viruses are microscopic organisms consisting of genetic material comprised of DNA or ribonucleic acid (“RNA”), surrounded by a protein, lipid (fat), or glycoprotein coat. Viruses invade healthy, living host cells in order to replicate and spread. In many cases, the body’s immune system can recognize and effectively combat an infection caused by a virus. However, with certain viral infections, the body’s immune system is unable to fully destroy or inhibit the replication of the virus, which results in persistent and ongoing viral replication resulting in disease.

Infections caused by viruses can be chronic or acute. Chronic infections, such as those caused by HIV, do not typically self-resolve with time and can cause chronic disease. Acute infections associated with viruses, such as influenza, generally last for a relatively short period of time, and self-resolve in most immuno-competent individuals.

Viruses can also be characterized as either active or latent. An active virus can cause a persistent infection or disease over an extended period of time. A latent virus will remain in the body for very long periods of time after the initial infection and generally will only cause disease when the body’s immune system weakens, fails or is suppressed, allowing the virus to once again replicate. Vaccines have been widely used to prevent active viral infections from occurring.

Viruses that develop resistance to antiviral drugs are increasingly becoming a challenge in the treatment of viral infections, particularly those that are chronic in nature. The ability of viruses to mutate spontaneously during replication allows drug-resistant strains to emerge when patients are using drugs that are not potent enough to quickly and completely inhibit viral replication. Drug resistance occurs because viruses continually replicate making millions of copies of themselves, some of which contain mutations in their genetic material. Mutations that emerge in the presence of a suppressive antiviral drug will give rise to mutant strains that are wholly or partially resistant to that drug. These mutant viruses, while initially low in number, eventually become the predominant strain in an infected patient as those strains that remain susceptible to the drug are inhibited from replicating. Once this occurs, the treatment benefit of that particular antiviral drug often diminishes, resulting in treatment failure and the need for an alternate therapy with different or possibly new drugs, or classes of drugs. In general, viruses that cause chronic infections, such as HIV, are more likely to develop drug resistance due to the long-term and persistent exposure of the virus to the antiviral therapy.