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What Is Antiviral Resistance?

By Andrea Cross
Updated May 17, 2024
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Antiviral resistance occurs when a virus can no longer be destroyed by the drug used against it. This resistance is a natural survival mechanism of the virus, a forced evolution caused by spontaneous mutation that is then passed down to later generations. Antiviral resistance is an ongoing problem in medicine, and doctors have to be both prudent and creative when keeping up with the evolving strains.

The resistance to antiviral drugs initially occurs through spontaneous mutation that allows a number of viruses to survive the drugs' effects. This mutation is then passed down to subsequent generations. There are a number of ways in which the mutation makes the virus immune. The mutation may result in the virus creating a form of inhibitor that either modifies or inactivates the drug itself. A virus may change the configuration of the site at which the drug would normally bind to it for destruction, making the drug unable to bind to and attack it.

The metabolic pathway of the virus may be altered, allowing it to find alternative ways of infecting the host so that the specifically designed drug becomes ineffective. Finally, the virus may decrease in permeability, reducing the ability of the drug to accumulate in great enough amounts to overcome it. As these characteristics are passed down through generations of the virus, the result is a drug-resistant strain. Virus strains can become resistant to single or multiple drugs, resulting in superbugs.

Antiviral resistance is a significant problem because it makes it much more difficult for doctors to effectively fight viruses. Viruses that were once treatable suddenly become untreatable, and the medical community has an uphill struggle to try and keep up. In conditions such as HIV, tuberculosis, and influenza, new single and combination drugs must continually be researched and created in order to keep the disease under control. Even viruses such as staphylococcus, which was easily treated, have developed resistant strains. There are significant implications both for immunosupressed patients and for potential pandemics with antiviral resistance.

Resistant virus strains are caused in large part by the overprescription of antibiotics and antimicrobials for illnesses that the patient could fight naturally. These medications are also often taken irresponsibly, with patients stopping the drugs before they have taken the full prescribed course. This subsequently results in some viruses surviving and becoming resistant. The excessive use of domestic cleaning products is also blamed as common viruses become continually exposed to the products but are not always killed, allowing the strains to build up a resistance.

Antiviral resistance is fought by the prudent and sparing prescription of drugs by doctors and the strong recommendation that patients take the full course of any medications they are prescribed. Multiple drugs are also used at the same time when treating infections such as HIV, with the hope that the virus will not become resistant to all, although this does happen. Finally, phage therapy is used where bacteriophages are released into the patient to consume and destroy the virus.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Mar 24, 2014

Developing antiviral medications seems to be a constant race that never ends. Considering the speed at which viruses become resistant to treatments, I doubt that we will ever be able to cure HIV and other serious viral diseases.

Science and technology has advanced so much, but we are still not fast enough to keep up with viruses. They're always one step ahead of us, finding new ways to survive and flourish.

The worst part is that because viruses use healthy body cells to replicate, we can't even attempt to wipe them out. If we do, we will also be wiping out normal body cells.

By turquoise — On Mar 23, 2014

@SarahGen-- I'm not an expert on this subject so I won't be able to give you a single accurate answer. As far as I know though, viruses/change mutate very quickly. Why do you think we have to get a new flu shot every year? Because every year, the virus causing the seasonal flu changes, and scientists have to develop a new flu shot that will work against the mutated virus.

So viruses can become resistant to drugs fairly quickly, I guess it depends on the virus and how it reacts. Just as it occurs with antibiotic resistance, I assume that the more viruses are exposed to a drug, the faster they will change.

By SarahGen — On Mar 23, 2014

How long does it usually take for a virus to become resistant to a drug? Are we talking about a matter of days, months or years?

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