During recent months, we’ve witnessed an unexpected and distressing pandemic of a coronavirus disease. What I find especially distressing about it is how the worldwide adversity was caused by just a tiny thing — namely, a virus called SARS-CoV-2.
However, biological viruses have always been a potent threat to humanity, as historic pandemics have proved. No wonder viruses became an ideal weapon model in a totally different world — a world of programming. The first computer viruses were created as early as in the 1970s. Starting as pranks, they evolved to become a major threat to the stability of computer networks worldwide. And the more I think of viruses, both biological and digital, the more amazed I am by their similarities.
We don’t know what kind of challenges viruses of either type will cause in the future, but understanding how they infect, the symptoms they induce, how they spread, and the damage they can cause can help us fight both.
The Common Thread
Let’s start with the basics: What does a virus look like?
The images in Figure 1 might look vastly different, but, essentially, they’re the same: a string of code. In the coronavirus, it’s the RNA genome in a shell; in Melissa, it’s computer code. In both cases, the code is an “instruction” for the virus to follow.
What are the other similarities?
Let’s not forget that both types of viruses represent just a single type of threat in their respective worlds. Along with biological viruses, there are bacteria, fungi, and other germs. However, in our daily life, we often say we “caught a virus” whenever we feel ill.
Similarly, computer viruses are just one kind of malware — malicious computer programs. Still, we usually call all the harmful programs by the common word “viruses.” In fact, classic viruses are not that widespread. Many infamous cyber outbreaks were caused by computer worms, close relatives of viruses that are more infectious and independent. We’ll talk more about worms, too.
There have been multiple outbreaks of viral diseases and computer malware in history, with some cases causing terrible damage. Biological virus epidemics are, of course, more severe in their impact — smallpox, Spanish flu, AIDS, Ebola, and COVID-19 are just a few.
While computer viruses aren’t lethal, nor do they cause devastating health consequences, they can still have a dangerous global impact. For example, in 2010, Stuxnet worm managed to cause substantial damage to the nuclear program of Iran. In 2008, Conficker worm infected, among others, the French Navy computer network forcing their aircraft to be grounded. MyDoom worm caused more than $38 billion in damage —comparable to the $40 billion global economic loss caused by the SARS coronavirus outbreak from 2002-2004.
Figure 2 shows some similarities between biological and computer viruses by analyzing the rate in which they spread over a certain timeframe. In the examples above, Code Red virus managed to infect over 350,000 computers in less than 24 hours, while the Ebola virus affected over 25,000 people in more than a year. Though infection rates are dissimilar, the general pattern is similar: the infection starts from single points and quickly becomes massive; you can see the exponential growth on both graphs above.
The crucial factor is that it is possible to stop the virus at the very beginning, drastically reducing the resulting damage. This leads us to a few important conclusions.
What Do Virus Outbreaks Teach Us?
I believe there are three principles we can (and should) follow each time we are at risk of epidemics, be they biological or digital. When are we at such risk? Basically, all the time.
1) Prevention is key
This can’t be stressed enough. Vaccination saves lives. Proper hygiene habits are essential. Investments in the immune system through a healthy diet, sleep, and exercise are important as well. These are ways to both avoid infection and to recover quickly should it happen.
Similarly, we need to protect our devices with security software and keep it updated. At the same time, we all should practice safe behavior online — avoid clicking on suspicious links, using weak passwords, running shady apps, and so on.
In both cases, we’re not just protecting our bodies or computers - this way we can stop the outbreak and prevent the infection curve from going up. We are also helping to protect other people.
2) Responsible behavior is a must
If we catch a virus, from the common cold to something more serious, we should act responsibly. Staying at home instead of rushing to the office, getting professional help instead of self-medicating, covering up when coughing or sneezing — these are basic rules for everyone who’s sick.
Containing a virus on your machine has similar protocols. You must isolate to prevent virus spread. If a computer has “fallen ill” or just shows symptoms, it also needs proper diagnostics and treatment. If there are any signs of a virus, we need to scan the device with a reliable antivirus. It’s important not to connect the computer to any networks or other devices until the malware is deleted. And if the case seems complicated, it’s better to contact an expert.
Eventually, the behavior of infected ones strongly influences how the virus outbreak goes.
3) Panic is our enemy
Being careful and responsible is good; overreacting and panicking is not.
Whenever a disease spreads, we need to educate ourselves and know what’s true about it and what’s not. It is important to be extra careful with information we receive and share. While official sources, such as the Center for Disease Control and prevention or World Health Organization, are trustworthy and reliable, apocalyptic gossips on social media are not and bring only harm.
Similarly, there’s no need to install 12 different antivirus applications or disconnect from the internet forever. Instead, it makes sense to choose one reliable security program and only follow advice from trusted specialists.
While biological and computer viruses have similarities, there are, of course, significant differences in how they behave and how they can be tackled.
It's important to remember that humans come with a built-in, self-enhancing “antivirus,” but most devices don’t. Our immune system is a remarkably efficient tool that beats most germs. While we should help it by practicing healthy habits, it is already a strong and evolving mechanism. As for our devices, we need to arm them with their own immune system. People should thoroughly research antivirus software and wisely choose a reputable solution that best fits their needs. Once up and running, they should also stay on top of critical updates to ensure their software continues to run smoothly and maintain efficacy against the latest viruses.
What is universally true is that relevant prevention, care, and treatment are crucial in all cases. Unfortunately, we all can involuntarily become part of a virus outbreak, be it medical or technical. As the coronavirus continues, and we increasingly rely on digital services, we should do our best to stay healthy both online and offline. By acting wisely and responsibly, we can protect ourselves and many, many others. Let’s take care together.