American writer Lish McBride made this observation: “Fear, left unchecked can spread like a virus.”

It seems that both fear and viruses are spreading across the Island, the country and the world. Both are formidable forces that can have a significant influence on our physical health and emotional well-being.

There has been a lot said and written about Covid-19, a new and potent virus, so no need to add to the conversation. However, the science and biology of viruses is worthy of attention.

Viruses are microscopic organisms that can only be seen with powerful microscopes. It wasn’t until the discovery of the electron microscope that the existence of viruses was confirmed in 1939.

Small, we know, can be mighty. To give a sense of how tiny, ponder the size of the polio virus. The diameter of that virus is 30 nanometers which is 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt. And for rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, 500 million of the little buggers can fit on the head of a pin. Turkish writer Mehmet Murat Ildan understood their influence: “A virus can change the fate of the world; power has nothing to do with being tiny or giant! Power is something related to the power hidden within…”

Considered microscopic parasites, viruses cannot thrive and reproduce without a host organism. Viruses have a very simple structure. While they have genetic material, either DNA or RNA, the key elements of a living organism, these organisms are said to “teeter on the boundary of what is considered life.” Besides the genomic material, only one or two other parts make up a virus, including a requisite protein casing called a capsid and, on some, an enveloping membrane.

Barbara Ehrenreich, an American writer, is philosophical of its classification: “Life is of course a misnomer, since viruses, lacking the ability to eat or respire are officially dead, which is in itself intriguing, showing as it does that the habit of predation can be taken up by clusters of molecules that are in no way alive.”

Many viruses are human predators and include killers and inconveniencers. Influenza, herpes, ebola, shingles, mumps, measles, rubella, SARS, dengue fever, zika, HPV and even cold sores are all viruses. And viral diseases have no cures, only vaccinations to prevent them and anti-virals which slow their progress. Not only humans can be affected, as viruses will infect other animals, plants, bacteria and fungi also.

Not all viruses are bad. There are viruses in our guts that are good and necessary for health and digestion and viruses, both “attenuated” (still living but rendered harmless) and “inactive” (dead) can be used in vaccines to fight disease caused by that virus or provide immunity from other viruses.

We can look to history to see the potential of these unique organisms and study its interactions with plants and animals. There have been successes and failures on both sides of the fight. As scientist James Lovelock explained: “An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.”

Take heart that it is in a virus’s best interest to keep its host alive.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.