With the recent outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, the world has once again turned its attention to medical science – and, specifically, the concept of viruses.

The question on everyone’s minds: Why can’t we get rid of these things?!

After all, we have managed to take care of bacterial infections. Antibiotics have been around since 1928, and they’re darn effective at what they do. And, at the same time, medical science is rapidly evolving. We have robot doctors, for crying out loud! So why can’t we cure something as simple as the common cold (the most well-known virus)?

Well, actually, we can technically “cure” viruses… sort of. The problem is, we can’t do it safely – yet. Let us explain!

How Bacteria and Viruses Work

Image source: EMA Care LLC

Before we go further, let’s clarify something: When you’re trying to cure a viral or bacterial infection, the goal is to “eliminate the invaders”. Bacteria and viruses invade existing organisms (like humans) and replicate themselves, eventually taking over – preventing whatever it is they’re attacking from functioning properly.

In order to cure this, you have to find and eliminate these invaders. Now, your body is already very good at this – it has most of the tools you need to handle most “invasions”, which is aided by rest and a good diet.

However, when the invaders are too much for your body to handle, you need help. If it’s a bacterial infection, you’re in luck – we have antibiotics that are designed to destroy bacteria without damaging anything essential to your body’s normal functions.

But when it’s a virus, the only thing you can really do is minimize the symptoms and help your body find the strength it needs to kick out the viral infection on its own. The reason for this is that we don’t know how to safely identify and destroy viruses.

Why We Can Cure Bacterial Infections

To understand why bacterial infections are curable but viruses are so difficult to eliminate, we have to look at how these organisms work.

First, bacteria. Bacteria replicates itself organically, while viruses take over existing cells in your body. This means each individual “bacterium” is a living organism – it’s capable of replicating itself, has a functioning metabolism, and has cell membranes that are distinct from human cells.

Image source: MicrobiologyInfo.com

That makes bacteria pretty complex, which is good. Because there are so many distinct traits for each bacterium, we’re able to design drugs that target and destroy cells with traits that only the invasive bacteria possess – without risking accidentally destroying healthy human cells.

It’s this “process of elimination” that allows us to create safe antibiotics. Because bacteria are so diverse, we can distinctify them from normal cells. However, viruses are not the same…

Why We Can’t Cure Viruses

Viruses are much less complicated than bacteria. They don’t have a metabolism, nor can they reproduce on their own. Instead, they have to hijack an existing cell and take it over.

In order to do this, viruses don’t need much – just enough to produce the proteins they need to attack a cell. And, because they are so simple, they’re very difficult to target with a drug.

Image source: Futurism.com

We could just destroy all cells containing the virus – but the problem is, any solution we design for this purpose wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between viruses and normal cells.

Think of it this way: Destroying bacteria is like looking for a needle in a haystack, where the needle is a healthy cell and the haystack are bacteria – you can just burn the hay, leaving the needle intact (assuming the hay isn’t important). But with viruses, you’re looking for a needle in a stack of needles, where the virus and healthy cells are nearly impossible to tell apart. Where do you begin?!

Now, to go one step further, consider this: Most viruses have multiple forms – there are 160+ types of common cold alone! It’s not just one virus, but a number of different versions for each disease (for example, this new coronavirus is just a unique type of influenza). So even if we did find a solution to isolate a “needle in a stack of needles”, we’d need to come up with 160 more unique variations of that solution before we’d have a true catch-all cure.

How Far Are We From A Cure?

So, that’s the situation we’re dealing with. It has little to do with technological advancement – it’s about solving a fundamental problem. That said, there is hope! Groups around the world are working on innovative solutions, and some are even making headway.

For example, HIV is a virus – and recently, we discovered techniques that allow us to reduce the presence of the virus to undetectable levels using a mixture of drugs, and have even eliminated it completely in mice. This is a huge breakthrough, and while the solution here is unique to HIV, it’s not crazy to think that we’ll start seeing novel solutions for other viruses in the near future.

Until then, just remember: If you’ve got the sniffles, get yourself some rest and pump up the vitamins. The most technologically advanced antivirus solution currently available is your body, so take good care of it!