When a patient went into a seizure in an eastern European hospital, one of the first phone calls went to Motoaki Yamamura, group manager at a renowned virus lab — for computer viruses, that is — in Santa Monica, California. Why? The hospital’s medication database had been infected by a virus that was deleting and rewriting patient files. The hospital couldn’t track down other cases like that of the seizure victim, to whom, on the corrupted file’s instructions, they had given the wrong medicine.

As chief virus hunter for Symantec Corp., Yamamura has a daily schedule resembling an intense game of beat the clock. Once a call comes into the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center, Yamamura and his team of 75 engineers must simultaneously decrypt and dissect the bug, alert the media, and start developing a cure. Every minute it takes to contain an outbreak can mean terabytes of lost data, millions of lost dollars — even lost lives. The team’s average turnaround from alert to cure: about six hours.

The lab wrestles with more than 50,000 viruses every month, about 300 of which are entirely new. At least two are the sort of virulent strain that prompt a 2 a.m. distress call. Viruses cost business $1.6 trillion worldwide last year, according to CMP’s Reality Research & Consulting.