Virologists: What Do They Do?

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 30, 2020

Since the advent of modern medicine, virologists have contributed to innovations in health care from developing vaccines for multiple diseases to sequencing DNA.

These infectious disease specialists are highly skilled medical experts who manage the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, HIV, and Ebola. They currently serve on the frontlines of the COVID-19 epidemic, tracking the cause and spread of the virus and researching potential vaccines.

Multifaceted Medical Care

Virologists may be medical doctors or researchers. Some are engaged in direct patient care, working alongside other health care professionals to treat those with persistent viral infections. Others work behind the scenes, advising general practitioners on the most appropriate antiviral drugs, making recommendations for vaccine use, or advising hospital staff on reducing the spread of infection.

You can find virologists working in hospitals, health departments, universities, and agencies such as the CDC and the World Health Organization. Their roles include clinicians, professors, and clinical investigators.

Extensive Education

The education and training required to work as a virologist depends on whether the goal is to work as a researcher or clinician. Researchers must complete a PhD and postdoctoral research, while medical doctors specializing in virology undergo up to 16 years of education and training, including an undergraduate degree, medical school, residency, and postdoctoral training.

Pandemic Preparedness

Thanks to their skills mapping the structure of viruses and devising strategies to prevent them from replicating, virologists are often key members of pandemic preparedness and response teams. At the CDC, researchers are growing the virus that causes COVID-19 in labs to determine how it’s transmitted and which experimental antiviral medications might treat or prevent infections.

By the Numbers

9,136: Number of infectious disease specialists in the United States.

1,001: Number of viruses that affect humans.

1798: Year the first vaccine was developed (for smallpox).

4.1 million: Number of annual emergency room visits for infectious diseases.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.

Show Sources


Enquist, L.W. Journal of Virology, June 2009.

The Royal College of Pathologists: “Become a Virologist.”

American Association for the Advancement of Science: “With record-setting speed, vaccinemakers take their first shots at the new coronavirus.”

The American Society for Virology.

United States Department of Agriculture: “Virologist.”

New York State Department of Health: “Virology.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

American Association of Medical Colleges: “2018 Physician Specialty Data Report.”

Lasso, G. Cell, August 2019.

Immunization Action Coalition: “Vaccine Timeline.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Infectious Disease.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info