There’s no way around it: Viruses are scary. They’re invisible to the naked eye, they can be difficult to get rid of and many are capable of spreading quickly. That’s why it’s important to detect a disease-causing virus before it has the chance to infect so many people that it’s impossible to contain.
Failure to detect and contain a deadly virus early enough to prevent an outbreak is a key component of the story in AMC’s sci-fi series “Fear the Walking Dead” (which airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT, starting Aug. 12). The show, now in its fourth season, follows characters as they try to survive in a world that’s been overcome by a deadly zombie virus.
Fortunately, in the real world, scientists have developed multiple techniques for detecting viruses quickly — and, hopefully, before an outbreak were to occur.
One of the most sensitive ways to detect viruses is by identifying their nucleic acids — either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA), said Dr. Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, an infectious-disease specialist and global technology researcher at the University of California, San Diego. Nucleic acids are the molecular materials that tell a virus how to build itself. (They essentially serve the same purpose in both humans and other creatures.)
There are hundreds of known viruses that scientists can quickly identify by recognizing their unique sequence of nucleic acids, but some are easier to find than others. Most viruses like to grow in the blood, but they aren’t always easy to find, Aronoff-Spencer explained. “Some viruses like to stay latent for a long time, and you might not see them” — one such virus is hepatitis B, he said. Other times, there’s not a high enough concentration of the virus in the blood, which can make it difficult to identify the virus.