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What it’s like to be a virus

They can hijack genes, spread exponentially and bring the world to a halt—but are they alive?

By Cal Flyn   May 2021

It is even disputed whether viruses count as being “alive.” Illustration: Kate Hazell

Picture this, if you can: you are a twizzle of genetic material held in a capsule made of protein. You are very, very small—a hundred million of you could fit on the head of a pin. But strength comes in numbers: you and your kind, added together, weigh more than all the living matter in the world: all the trees, all the plants, all the people, all the animals.

Alone, admittedly, you don’t amount to much. You float around, perhaps clinging to droplets in the air, functionally inert. But when you come into contact with a possible host,…

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