Let us assume for one moment that a virus is a living, conscious entity. The very idea that a virus actually constitutes life let alone that it has the ability to think is a highly contentious issue within the scientific community. But if you allow me the anthropomorphic indulgence we can begin our journey onwards with this thought experiment.
Now that we have delved down beyond the microscopic level to reach viruses we look around and see that they have their own individual personalities. The brash highly muscular brute of a virus throwing his weight around over there is the Ebola virus. Wait, who is that over there reading the Art of War by Sun Tzu? Oh that’s the HIV virus. So who would you be the jock or the nerd?
Let us begin by asking a simple yet paradoxically hard question. What is the purpose of life? We are asking this from the point of view of a virus and thus the question is simple, if we were to return to our human form then this same question would become paradoxically hard. For the virus the purpose of life is simple, it is to replicate. How best can a virus achieve this? Another slight detour is required before we answer this, and this has to do with the freeloading lifestyle of the virus. Like the couch surfing friend you wish would leave, the virus needs a host. It just hasn’t got the skill set to go it alone like your friend who has turned your front room into their bedroom. The virus lacks the cellular machinery to replicate and so it hijacks the host’s cellular components to make copies of itself. It does this all the while trying to avoid the host’s immune system best efforts to rid itself of the virus. Similar to the way your friend knows just when to buy that perfectly timed present the minute you decide to turf him out, always being able to extend his temporary stay indefinitely. So, the virus and host, like you and you couch surfing friend, learn to tolerate each other and get on with life. The virus can’t go replication crazy within the host; after all you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. So how does the virus spread? It finds another species and jumps ship. This is called zoonosis.
We can now return to the simple question of how does a virus spread? Imagine you have two options available to you; the Ebola method or the HIV technique. Now would you, like the Ebola virus leave your reservoir (as yet the reservoir for Ebola remains unknown and so if you are a budding virologist in need of a Nobel prize then finding this reservoir would be a good place to start), and sow destruction immediately as if glad to be free of the shackles of the host, similar to an adolescent leaving the watchful gaze of their parents while they disappear to “study” for four years at university. In addition to being extremely deadly, you would, as Ebola be highly infectious. However, the problem with this approach is that you would burn right through a small village, spread rapidly, killing everyone but then after the initial deadly epidemic you would have nowhere to go because you killed everyone. A pyrrhic victory indeed.
Lentiviruses (lent slow in Latin) on the other hand take a long-term approach rather than the instant gratification of the Ebola virus. The HIV virus is a lentivirus after having jump from chimpanzees in the form of SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) to become HIV. The ancient ancestor bequeathed the genetic potential to evade the human’s immune system much like he evaded the primate’s immune system. What an ingenious method for a virus, attack the very system that is trying to eradicate you, after all the best defence is attack. (He did read Sun Tzu then). HIV is also a retrovirus, (no that doesn’t mean he likes anything to do with the 60s and 70s). which means it works in reverse and uses it’s RNA to make DNA and insert itself into the new host’s DNA (yes he definitely read the ART of War).
By now we know the HIV virus is a careful strategist unlike the pure brute bludgeoning power of the Ebola virus. Transmission of the Ebola can be easily prevented; all that is required is to quarantine the infected individuals to prevent the transfer of blood or body fluids. Since Ebola causes haemorrhagic fever and although probably not to the graphic extent as depicted in the book “The Hot Zone” it would be easy to spot infected individuals and stay the hell away. Compare this to the subtle means HIV uses to spread. The infected individual has no idea they have been infected and it may be a decade before serious symptoms appear allowing them to spread the virus far and wide. It uses the hosts desire to procreate to drive it’s own transmission. For these reasons HIV has become a global pandemic while outbreaks of Ebola although extremely deadly have remained localised and have been contained.
So personally I would take the long and strategic view of the HIV virus as opposed to the live fast, die young approach of the Ebola virus. It all depends, are you a jock or a nerd?