Viruses don't contain the enzymes needed for chemical reactions (like replication, for example). They need a host cell (plant, animal, bacteria, etc) to multiply: once they infiltrate a cell, they start forcing it to replicate its own genes. The host cell becomes filled with newly created viruses until it literally explodes open, releasing a whole new batch of viruses which then attach to other cells, thus continuing the cycle. This is how and why viruses can spread so fast.
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Discovery of the first virus, the tobacco mosaic virus (NIH.gov)
"Two scientists contributed to the discovery of the first virus, Tobacco mosaic virus. Ivanoski reported in 1892 that extracts from infected leaves were still infectious after filtration through a Chamberland filter-candle. "