The drug stimulates the virus to create excessive numbers of mutations - a process known as 'error catastrophe', researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, USA, have found.
Laboratory studies showed that the virus mistakenly inserts the drug into newly formed copies of its RNA genome.
This provoked the generation of new mutations, leading to 'genetic meltdown'.
Two pharmaceutical companies are now using the findings to search for improved anti-viral drugs, researchers said. Until now, it had been thought that the drug worked by blocking viral replication.
Researcher Shane Crotty said, "These viruses are incredibly clever. They use mutations to get around almost anything. But we now see that ribavirin adds so many extra mutations to the virus that it is pushed into a kind of genetic meltdown.
"This paper shows that mutagenesis is a valuable anti-viral drug strategy. And it's reasonable to assume that there are other drugs like this out there, but until now we haven't known the right way to look for them."
Report Copyright: Englemed Health News at http://www.internationalmedicalnews.com