Are Viruses Living?

Let’s first define life. According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, life is “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.”

Viruses are not living things. Viruses are complicated assemblies of molecules, including proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates, but on their own they can do nothing until they enter a living cell. Without cells, viruses would not be able to multiply. Therefore, viruses are not living things.

When a virus encounters a cell, a series of chemical reactions occur that lead to the production of new viruses. These steps are completely passive, that is, they are predefined by the nature of the molecules that comprise the virus particle. Viruses don’t actually ‘do’ anything. Often scientists and non-scientists alike ascribe actions to viruses such as employing, displaying, destroying, evading, exploiting, and so on. These terms are incorrect because viruses are passive, completely at the mercy of their environment.

Update: See a more recent post for my thoughts on this question.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Yure Welcome 27 November 2012, 5:01 pm

    This is so not true

  • The creator 6 December 2012, 7:28 pm

    This could have made sense if they just said yes or no if viruses are a living thing. Now I’m off to correct more people ^_^

  • Jana 28 December 2012, 7:39 pm

    I have a couuple of questions:
    1. “predefined by the nature of the molecules .” Isn’t that also true of an enzyme? (function follows structure)?
    2. I haven’t read here why it’s important to know whether or not a virus is living. I have some ideas, but I’m interested in what others have to say.

  • peterherz 6 January 2013, 2:43 pm

    Archae and viruses make me wonder if they’re where life came from after abiogenic processes got the DNA snowball started.

  • Shadi 14 January 2013, 11:49 am

    Unless you define what life is,debating about it will be pointless. The definition of life then needs attributes that will characterize it as such,the problem is who or what decides what these attributes are. The scientific community is honestly making do with their current definition and it is far from being completely accurate. Are viruses alive? What is “life”, is a philosophical question not a biological one,biology deals with the tools, sure. If you deduce life to simply reproduction and metabolic actions then why do these characteristics count as life when they are just simply mechanical systems working and functioning like how viruses are working and functioning like a mechanical system? If these then are just material entities functioning upon cause and effect (which they are) then why aren’t you calling complex geological systems alive? Because they aren’t organic,or made up of amino acids and thus proteins? Both are matter are they not? No one would call the earth “alive”, yet the earth is filled with complex interactions and function that produce an effects exactly like the cell,only difference is the functions are different and the chemical make up is not the same,both are material entities working upon cause and effect. Life then should be defined then on a will basis,that is,that with a will is that with life,hence why thinkers and philosophers have always associate life with will.

  • ThinkAboutIt 15 January 2013, 4:58 pm

    sounds more like a seed, lays dormant until the correct elements of stimulae are added, then – reproduction.

  • ThinkAboutIt 15 January 2013, 5:02 pm

    Seems that the claims labelled on sanitizers is incorrect, since they can’t kill any virus. Killing 99% of microbes is more likely to kill 99% of bacteria, the types a human’s immune system kills on its own, even a weakened immune system. The label doesn’t ever what percentage are viruses. Since they can’t be killed, we are left with mobs of people believing non-science and buying cases of the stuff. Dah! Are people just sheeple or what?

  • ThinkAboutIt 15 January 2013, 5:06 pm

    The point is how to deactivate, prevent a virus from being activated – doesn’t matter alive or not. Capability is the issue. Does sanitizer “deactivate” “cripple” “block” “halt” a virus from being activated?

  • ubermench 19 January 2013, 12:47 am

    if the living thing has a genetic plan to find a host(cell),isn’t that not unlike a parasite microfilleri.many types of parasites need a host to reproduce.Since viruses are able to reproduce,that is to say make more like themselves once in a “host” cell,are they not in many ways merely another form of microscopic parasites.If so they are like a seed,egg of parasites that needs a host,or a spore.All require a specific environmental circumstance to reproduce. If the ability to reproduce is the defining requirement for life I’ld argue that viruses are life ,or at least a seed,spore,egg of sorts, Genetically designed to seek out and parasitically bond to the viruses new host cell.Basically viruses are very like parasites of many sorts(eg. dog heartworm,flea ‘s carry the eggs for the dogs to get tapeworm) many parasites need quite an involving process to reach the intended host.

  • Anon 21 January 2013, 5:25 pm

    I believe most of that 99% is fungal microbes, easier to kill.

  • Sa San 23 January 2013, 4:51 am

    Thank you… for your advice a bout viruses
    I can do my homework , now

  • qaasq 31 January 2013, 2:27 pm

    Humans can’t do anything without reaching out and to things around us. We can’t reproduce without the help of others, we need food from the world around us. We depend on reaching out… we’re essentially hosting on the earth. Viruses reproduce wth help, like us. Viruses evolve like us and blah blah blah…

  • qaasq 31 January 2013, 2:34 pm

    People can’t do anything without a host! A virus is ding what its created to- survive. Just like us, we host off earth and trees, animals even other. Without these things we’d just be a mass of DNA and cells.

  • Fonkwe Fongang Edwin 1 February 2013, 6:15 am

    Are you saying that those scientists who say the HIV can become drug-resistant are wrong?

  • Chompers 3 February 2013, 2:24 pm

    What the hell are you talking about? Have u read any scientific paper? No evidence for viral evolution? No evidence for evolution period? “The problem is nobody has ever effectively isolated the complete virus from fresh plasma and proved beyond doubt that it is capable of causing an ‘infection’” Wow, I haven’t heard this much nonsense since the Republican primary debates. You sound like a philosophy major without a clue concerning biology. Wait, is this a digitized argument from the 1800’s? If so, I have some questions for you.

  • muadnem smith 5 February 2013, 11:03 pm

    they are as alive as anything else

  • muadnem smith 5 February 2013, 11:21 pm


  • Benjamin Kores 13 February 2013, 5:26 pm

    Then explain how an old man must rely on a doctor or hospital to make him well! Viruses are definitely LIVING!

  • Hugo Velarde 2 March 2013, 11:13 pm

    That’s right Mr. Profesor, The virus it’s an amazing thing’s

  • Protogonus 8 March 2013, 7:07 pm

    Passive and active are inextricably linked in concept and in practice. Therefore, the idea that viruses are not “doing” anything is absurd. Likewise, life and death are inevitably to be considered together, which is why dead viruses and living systems should be considered as one meta-system. In practice, viruses are “doing” all kinds of things at the level of animal and plant populations. It is the virologist who is restricting this subject when he insists that the atomistic virus is the subject. It is not. It is viruses (plural) that form the subject matter of virology, and this is obviously true even when not properly acknowledged, as here.

  • Protogonus 8 March 2013, 7:40 pm

    This is an interesting question. If viruses are totally passive, as the virologist teaches, then they are female.

  • Jamieso 18 March 2013, 3:28 pm

    I’m 11 and I’m trying to learn thanks I though viruses are living organisms

  • Auntbet 19 March 2013, 4:27 pm

    Wait but a mule ( a mix between a horse and a donkey) can’t reproduce so by your rules a mule is not living.

  • Jimbo 7 May 2013, 3:30 pm

    How spooky

  • sakman 7 May 2013, 7:17 pm

    wrong because viruses have metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. so how

  • sakman 7 May 2013, 7:18 pm


  • Bajil 14 May 2013, 12:01 pm

    then what about the concept of vaccine?

  • Aaron Blu 20 May 2013, 7:53 pm

    To understand what is living and what is dead we have to change our definition of each term. We are getting hung up on the dichotomy of alive: not alive that we can’t even comprehend something that is in-between. If you notice there is no gender term for intersexuality in regards to gender or sexuality. (We have male/female and man/woman, but does hermaphrodite suffice?) The same thing is happening. There is no term for something that is both seemingly alive but also incapable of reproducing itself outside a host cell. (Also my biology teacher at Seattle Central says, “Viruses are not living”).

  • Cisco 6 July 2013, 6:34 am

    It used to be (when I was in high school, so ’98 to 2002) that viruses were considered by some to be alive, by others to be inorganic, and this disagreement was (albeit not ideal) an accepted, debated topic. I have a problem with the fact that viruses (imho of course) while very simple and granted, yes, so very basic in terms of reproduction via parasitism, exhibit what I would classify as behavior given the method and focus of their “behavior” to prioritize reproduction and its cycle. Many parasites perform reproduction at least in part, if not entirely so, by infecting (acting as a parasite–like a leech, heartworm, etc.) what were initially healthy bodies (cells)and then (eventually, if not immediately) taking advantage of transcription and translation as key components to cellular function in order to propagate *their* species. But, of course, if they are inorganic (as in, non-living), then said reproduction of the species would be irrelevant and fruitless, as would any kind of “evolution” or “natural selection” . However, as we have all been victim to that lovely viral infection we call, “the cold,” (not to mention the illnesses caused by other viruses, heh), it is blatantly clear that infection, survival, and propagation (of the species imho) via mass infection, and corruption of the host cell’s organic blueprints so as to serve these goals (these priorities), at the almost always fatal expense of the host cell–which by the way, given their use of RNA, benefit from natural selection and adaptation–are of the utmost importance to these supposedly non-living…agents…of infection, of destruction.

    What say you?


  • Laqudis 2 August 2013, 4:26 am

    Viruses remind me of a human after some traumatic brain injury. They might in some abstract way, be called alive but only those lower parts of the brain, those serving function are evident. Sort of a poor choice of words but I think most will get my meaning.

  • Nassolo Winnie 2 August 2013, 8:24 am

    Since viruses are obligate micro-organisms, it’s pretty obvious they are not living organisms outside the host cell environment.

  • SGM 3 August 2013, 6:11 am

    “Without cells, viruses would not be able to multiply.” is not exactly a valid argument. Sounds like “Without oxygen, human would not be able to live not alone multiply”. So for now, my answer would be YES it is living …

  • Jaci Lapointe 3 August 2013, 3:46 pm

    Wow, day one of Virology I: Welcome to Virology and I have already learned something totally new to me! Viruses are not living things, yeah, mind blown… I honestly thought they were… but when you boil it down, no they truly are not! Wonder what other amazing facts are coming my way, cant wait!

  • SoloPocono 3 August 2013, 4:46 pm

    When I was in school 20 yrs ago, I had a Micro professor insist they were living, a virology professor say no, an immunology prof say yes, and an infectious disease doc I externed with say No..
    I’ll reserve judgement and say something in between… 😉
    As this prof says, when they are outside a cell, they are “dormant”-like a seed; but once they enter a cell-the whole ball game changes! 😉

  • andy 5 August 2013, 12:03 pm

    Nice and useful!! THanks

  • DebB 6 August 2013, 10:25 am


  • Aram 7 August 2013, 7:59 am


  • smart philosopher 26 August 2013, 10:01 pm

    They say that viruses are non-living. Actually they are technicalities that mimic life but are not alive; they just happen to reproduce as a side-effect whenever they hit a cell and die. After all, cells are the smallest living thing and viruses are smaller. If viruses were to somehow become living, they wouldn’t mutate as fast and could hold the secret to immortality. An inactive virus would be like a cyro-frozen human, which wouldn’t age, so technically the virus’s life-force wouldn’t count.

  • jorge 4 September 2013, 2:24 pm


  • wut 4 September 2013, 3:07 pm

    Well hopefully you are keeping him interested with tons of viruses..

  • John Gutenstein 4 September 2013, 7:47 pm

    I am you from 2 years in the future, and have come to guide you so you do not fail as I have. First off, past-me, I think you should focus your efforts in English.

    Correction: I really don’t get this!!!!! Some say they are alive and some say they aren’t! Which one/side should I pick? Well this somewhat answered my homework…………….

    Also, don’t decide based on the comments, in fact, don’t decide which one you “believe” unless it is the one scientifically backed-up.

  • John Gutenstein 4 September 2013, 7:50 pm

    What have we become, as race of body-snatchers who “can’t do anything without a host”?

  • D-aches-a-lot 7 September 2013, 11:27 am

    I’ll give you a virus, you can give him the virus, and together in ten years the two of you can enjoy the symptoms I no longer have…then you can go on a really fun drug therapy together for the rest of your lives, and reminisce about how much fun viruses are. hit me up gurl..

  • Go-to-school 7 September 2013, 11:51 am

    hand sanitizers are predominantly alcohol and lotion. the lotion is to prevent frequent use from drying out your skin…the alcohol kills anything by lysing the cellular membrane. it kills viruses and microbes and fungi and archaea and anything else living. it kills your own cells indiscriminately too. That’s why alcohol burns when it gets into your body….it’s destroying your cells. your cells are literally rupturing.

    Hand sanitizers are popping up all over hospitals now b/c they’re good at killing anything…that is the nature of how alcohol works. it is a very effective sterilizing agent.

  • ilovevagina 7 September 2013, 11:56 am

    An obligate parasite is a parasitic organism that cannot complete its life cycle without exploiting a suitable host

    come on guys. read a little.

  • kk 11 September 2013, 9:41 pm

    i believe that viruses are half dead…

  • RerumCognoscereCausas 17 September 2013, 7:40 am

    I have an issue with the assertion that viruses are not living because “they can do nothing on their own until they enter a living cell”.

    So, a living cell is akin to a hospitable environment for a virus just as the Earth is a hospitable environment for us, without which, we too would be able to do nothing. But we are still considered a life-form, and not a virus?

  • carl higgins 26 September 2013, 4:11 pm

    hey boys just checkin in nice article not t shabby

  • carl higgins 26 September 2013, 4:12 pm

    you know i actually love virus they totally turn me on if you know what i mean. so basically if you add 1 plus 2 you get a nice juicy virus. thatis it they are living!!!!

  • carl higgins 26 September 2013, 4:13 pm

    good thinking duude