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Virologists study viral microscopic organisms that cause diseases. They attempt to create new vaccines and medicines that will help cure these diseases and provide immunity to human beings.

Viruses have plagued human beings since the beginning of history. Some, more lethal than others, such as chickenpox, Ebola, AIDS, hepatitis, and influenza (the flu) are viruses that both human beings and virologists have been struggling with.

Virologists study how viruses are able to replicate in animal, plant and bacterial cells. To replicate, viruses take over the host cells on which they are parasites. The viral parasite causes changes in the cell, directing the host cell’s metabolism to produce new virus particles. Viruses come in two basic types, having a genome of either DNA or RNA. Accordingly, viruses infect all major groups of organisms including vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, fungi and bacteria.

Many people mistakenly believe that drugs such as antibiotics, help to combat viruses. Nevertheless, there are many preventative vaccinations now available to people, such as the hepatitis B vaccine or typhus shots. These vaccines are designed to immunise people against the infections. Those travelling to foreign regions where they are at risk due to various viral epidemics, are advised to get inoculated with region-specific vaccines to prevent being infected by a lethal virus.

The most common types of viruses are the “cold viruses” of which there are about 130 different types. Usually these infections are not very serious and may just cause a runny nose and malaise for a couple of days. Viruses are spread by contact with infected individuals. The usual method of transmission is person-to-person contact through mucus or blood secretions. Some types of virus can be transmitted through the air. In addition, drug users who share needles can easily become infected if the needle is contaminated with AIDS or hepatitis.

Virologists who work on researching dangerous organisms such as Ebola or AIDS, must take special safety precautions, such as wearing protective suits and working in biohazard areas, access to which is restricted to these scientists only. They usually work in teams with other microbiologists such as parasitologists, immunologists and bacteriologists, performing interdisciplinary research studies. Some may also work as medical doctors, treating patients with viral infections.

A virologist’s work seems to be never ending, as new viruses continually emerge. The career can be very rewarding since virologists make discoveries that help cure our deadliest scourges. There is a great deal of research being conducted on new treatments, improved diagnostics and vaccines.

Satisfying Aspects
- undertaking vital research
- making discoveries that cure deadly diseases
- satisfaction of helping people

Demanding aspects
- working long hours to meet project deadlines   
- high pressure can be stressful
- having to work with toxic or harmful chemicals
- having to follow strict safety rules and wear protective clothing
- danger of chemical injury or exposure to infection

- pay attention to detail
- be well-organised
- enjoy performing scientific research
- have an innate interest in natural phenomena
- have an inquiring mind
- have good manual dexterity

School Subjects
National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course

Each institution will have its own minimum entry requirements.

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Sciences
Recommended Subjects: Life Sciences

Degree: BSc - 4 years, in subjects such as Microbiology, Genetics, Immunology. Those who have a bachelor’s degree are qualified to work as laboratory assistants or technicians.

Postgraduate: A Master’s degree or PhD is always required for senior research positions. Those who have a PhD may continue their training as post-doctoral fellows and teach at the university level. Virology may be studied at e.g. US, UP, Wits.

Medical virologists preparing to work in hospitals or treat patients must take a medical degree and then specialise in virology.

- universities and colleges
- government departments
- industrial and diagnostic laboratories
- research organizations
- pharmaceutical companies
- biotechnology and bioremediation companies
- agricultural industry
- hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities
- food and beverage industry
- contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, focusing on individual research projects to formulate vaccines

National Institute for Virology
Private Bag X4
Sandringham, 2131

Department of Medical Microbiology
University of Cape Town