By Fabeha Shafaat

Where did viruses begin?[1]

Viruses are not cells and so, cannot divide, unlike typical living organisms. They are parasitic agents that do not belong to a kingdom and are acellular, relying on a host to multiply. Viruses infect host cells and produce multiple identical virus particles within the host cell and using their replicative systems to produce more viruses [2]. There are many theories that virologists have debated, regarding when viruses began. Overall, three main theories have been formed to retrace the history of viruses. The first one is the ‘Progressive/Escape Hypothesis’, which claims that viruses come from manoeuvrable genetic elements (pieces of genetic material able to move within a genome), that can move between cells, by leaving one genome and entering another.

The second thesis is the ‘Regressive/Reduction Hypothesis’. This states that viruses are the remains of cellular organisms. Microbiologists have concluded that current viral infections could have formed from independent, complex organisms that lost genetic information as they evolved through time, and then embraced a copying process, to replicate viruses. The final concept is called the ‘Virus-First Hypothesis’, which asserts that viruses existed before cells did. This is directly opposite to what the first two ideologies were proposing.

Many researchers, like Koonin and Martin (2005), have declared that viruses were the first self-replicating structures, and throughout the time they have become more organised and complex. The theory carries on to state that enzymes were discovered next, and as they were used for the synthesis of cell membranes and cell walls, cells were eventually formed. Therefore, these findings led to possibilities that viruses existed before bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes (these three are all types of microorganisms).

However, currently, many biologists agree that RNA (single-stranded nucleic acid that copies DNA to make proteins) was the first replicating molecule. It is a claim that maybe these replicating RNA molecules that lived before the formations of the first cells, advanced into infecting the first cells alive. As all of these are hypothesises, this means that none of them may be accurate. The beginning of the virus timeline is a true mystery, as there is no evidence for a clear explanation, so further studies may provide more proof.

Where were viruses first discovered? [2]

The Chamberland-Pasteur filter was invented by Charles Chamberland in 1884 [3], and this removed all of the bacteria from a sample of liquid, that could be seen through a microscope. Viruses were discovered after the development of the porcelain filter. Adolf Meyer, a Psychiatrist, showed that tobacco mosaic disease could be passed on from a plant affected by the disease to a healthy plant, via the liquid plant extracts from Chamberland’s discovery, in 1886. Six years later, Dmitri Ivanowski, a Russian botanist, demonstrated that tobacco mosaic disease could be transmitted similar to Meyer’s method, but even after all of the visible bacteria from the sample was removed, via the Chamberland-Pasteur filter. Therefore, it was proven that these infectious agents were not bacteria, but a minuscule, disease-causing particle, which turned out to be a virus.

Virus is dominated by the bacterial cell it is infecting [2]

How were viruses treated in early history?[4]

In the 18th and 19th century, vaccinations were discovered to treat fatal diseases such as smallpox and rabies. Variolation is used to immunise people against smallpox[5], and the injection is used to take pus from a smallpox victim or a recently variolated individual, and into the skin of the person who is now protected from the disease. Rabies was a deadly disease caused by the infection of mammals with the rabies virus. A French Biologist called Louis Pasteur decided to start looking for a cure for rabies, even though only a few hundred people were infected yearly. He started by searching for the “microbe” in mad dogs. His discovery showed that when the dried spinal cords, from the dead dogs suffering from rabies, were crushed and injected into healthy dogs, the healthy ones were not infected by the deadly disease. Like with all science experiments, he repeated it many times on the same dog with tissue from his body, that had been dried for fewer and fewer days, until the dog survived even after injections of fresh infected spinal tissue. Pasteur repeated this experiment with 50 more dogs, as the first dog was immunised.

What are the issues faced with viruses currently? [6,7]

From 1997-98, 220 final year medical students were asked to complete a questionnaire when returning from their electives in an urban teaching hospital. 148 students filled in the questionnaires and the results were shocking. All of the 148 had had the vaccination against hepatitis B, while 65 respondents had visited areas in sub-Saharan Africa with a high likelihood of HIV, and 27 of these respondents were unaware of this. Four medical students experienced percutaneous (through the skin) or mucosal exposure, to infectious bodily fluids, and three of these students were in areas with highly common HIV cases.

44 people who completed the survey, had experienced a similar exposure during their clinical trading, and 75% of these exposures were not reported. 34% of students who visited areas that were known to have a high likelihood of HIV cases, took a starter pack of zidovudine (antiretroviral medication used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS) with them, 53% took latex gloves and 63% took a medical kit. Out of the 27 students who were unaware of the high likelihood of HIV infections in the areas that they visited, none of them took zidovudine, 15% took gloves and 30% took a medical kit. The conclusion from this study is that medical students should be taught Infection Prevention and Control earlier, and they should have regular updates regarding protection.

Amid the current COVID-19 crisis, there are many concerns that Doctors and GPs across the UK’s NHS team are not being provided with the sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed. The resources that are in short supply include fluid-resistant surgical masks, aprons, eye protection and protective gloves what the frontline need to survive.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required during Coronavirus Pandemic [8]

European[9], Asian[10] and Oceanic[11] History of Viruses:

The first major outbreak of plague in Europe was the Black Death in the 14th century, starting in 1346 and spreading across the continent until 1353. It was the second plague pandemic, estimated to have killed 30-60% of the European population. The recovery process for the continent was 200 years, but some regions like Florence in Italy did not recover until the 2000s. The Asian flu pandemic of 1957, first started in February in East Asia and then spread globally. In the 20th century, it was the second major influenza pandemic and killed 1-2 million people approximately. There were two other influenza pandemics in the 20th century, but this was the least severe. The 2009 flu pandemic in Oceania has a common name of the Swine Flu. It affected more than 22,000 people since 22 June 2009.

With over

What is most fascinating about the Coronavirus pandemic is not only its uniqueness in its capacity to spread and replicate but how it has truly transformed the world in the way we will react to similar circumstances in the future. It will certainly go down in history.

Fabeha Shafaat is a Year 11 student at Bolton School Girls' Division, an independent day school in Bolton, Greater Manchester, and one of the largest in the UK. Fabeha is currently studying for her GCSEs and will start college in September 2020, to study her A-levels, which will hopefully lead her to a career in Medicine.


  1. David R. Wessner, Ph.D. (Dept. of Biology, Davidson College) © 2010 Nature Education, The Origins of Viruses. Available at:
  2. Lumen learning, History of Viruses. Available at:
  3. Wikipedia, 4 March 2020, Chamberland Filter. Available at:
  4. Wikipedia, 5 April 2020, Social History of Viruses. Available at:
  5. Wikipedia, 6 April 2020, Variolation. Available at:
  6. Claire F Gamester, medical student,  Anthea J Tilzey, consultant virologist,  Jangu E Banatvala, professor of clinical virology, 16 January 1999, Medical students' risk of infection with bloodborne viruses at home and abroad: questionnaire survey. Available at:
  7. Anna Sayburn, freelance medical journalist, 2 April 2020, Are UK doctors getting sufficient protective equipment against covid-19? Available at:
  8. Ian Smith, 6 April 2020, Council seeks PPE supplies from Northumberland businesses. Available at:
  9. Wikipedia, 8 April 2020, Black Death. Available at:
  10. Kara Rogers, 25 February 2010, 1957 Flu Pandemic. Available at:
  11. Wikipedia, 4 April 2020, 2009 swine flu pandemic in Oceania. Available at: