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Science Corner- What is a Virus?

This is the first in a series of science posts developed to help our students make sense of the science terminology they may be hearing this year due to COVID-19. If you'd like to contribute or share feedback, please submit a contact form. Thank you!

What is a virus?

A virus is a very small thing with two parts and looks like a ball. The first part of the virus is the ball itself, which we will call the “shell”. The second part of a virus is inside the shell and is a set of instructions. What are the instructions? They are used to make copies of the shell and the instructions. That’s it. Pretty simple.

There are viruses everywhere and we should be not normally be afraid of them. How many viruses are there? Try multiplying a billion by a billion and then multiply that by ten trillion. That’s a big number, but it’s not scary.

So, a virus is just a set of instructions, wrapped in a shell to protect the instructions, that bumps around the universe waiting to find a machine that will carry out its instructions. It’s like having an ATM card. The card doesn’t do any good unless you have an ATM machine. Once you put the card into the machine, the card gives the machine instructions to give you money. A virus doesn’t do anything until it finds a machine to make a copy of itself. That machine it is looking for in a human is a called a cell.

Cells are the building blocks of our body and have machines in them that make our body parts like hair, skin, muscles and everything else in our body. If a virus can get into our cell, it can make a copy of itself and burst out of our cell. That kills the cell and weakens our body. The good news is that it’s hard for a virus to get into our cells and using soap and water kills a lot of viruses.

For viruses, we need to know they are out there, and we shouldn’t be scared of them until a bad one comes along. And that doesn’t happen very often. When that does, we need to make sure we wash our hands and wait for the scientists to come up with a vaccine. Keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks for some notes about how washing our hands helps contain the virus and how a vaccine works.

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