[ Watch the Video: Microbiologists Discuss The Chances For A Zombie Apocalypse ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Hollywood has amplified the idea of a zombie apocalypse for a long time, and the stories have grown increasingly popular in pop culture, particularly due to TV shows like ‘The Walking Dead‘ and movies like ‘World War Z.’
However, when you take science fiction out of the equation and add real-world science into it, a zombie virus looks a little less far-fetched, and perhaps a little more realistic.
RedOrbit reached out to a couple of microbiologists to weigh in on the subject of a “what-if” zombie virus in a real-world science-driven scenario. The scientists were asked to dream up a scenario in which a zombie virus could become reality, taking Hollywood out of the picture and instead use what they know about microbiology. Interestingly, both scientists had the same answer for a source: rabies.
“I think that the Zombie Virus already exists (almost): Rabies. Infection is nearly 100 percent lethal, i.e. it turns you into the walking dead (for a while at least), and it causes you to change your behavior by reprogramming you to bite other people to spread the infection. Now if only it kept the corpse walking around,” Jonathan D. Dinman, PhD, Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland, told redOrbit.
Essentially, the rabies virus would need to be slightly altered, or would have to evolve, in a way to keep people kicking and screaming for their next victim rather than killing them off just a few days after symptoms occur.
Rabies has to incubate inside the body before showing signs of infection, which includes anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, paralysis, agitation, hyper salivation, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia — fear of water. This incubation period can last anywhere from 10 days to a year, meaning a “zombie virus outbreak” may look a little slower and less “viral” than movies tend to portray.
“When we think of rabies, we think of dogs with foaming mouths but this virus is actually the most likely to mutate into something that would be similar to a ‘zombie virus’,” Dr. Samantha Price, an HCPC registered Biomedical Scientist and Research Information Co-ordinator for the UK MND Association, told redOrbit.
“The common symptoms of rabies are dislike of ‘bright lights’ and a fear of water. When you think of the film ‘I am Legend‘ the zombie-like creatures here dislike both of these things. Rabies is also transmitted via bodily fluids, bites etc and due to the virus making the individual increasingly aggressive the symptoms of rabies seem to be more alike to a Hollywood zombie than you probably previously thought,” said Dr Price. “Rabies is, however, highly fatal so the virus would need to mutate in a way that would make it less fatal — so that it could cause a ‘zombie-like’ outbreak.”
The idea of a virus evolving is not unheard of, and it’s also already being witnessed with another microorganism. Superbugs are a sub-population of microorganisms, usually bacteria, that have antibiotic resistance. In layman’s terms, superbugs have found a way past our armor, and it did it in just 90 years after penicillin was first discovered.
So how would rabies evolve into a superbug-like-virus that could potentially be deemed a zombie virus? Dr. Dinman may have the answer.
“So, you start with Rabies virus, but you engineer it so that it doesn’t actually kill you. It just takes over your brain and makes you want to bite other people to spread itself. Infected people just become automatons devoted to spreading the virus. The main viral property you’d want to change would be to convert it from causing an acute infection (like Ebola which tends to kill the victim quickly) to persistent infection (like Herpes, which stays with you for your entire life). Functions you’d want the infected person to retain would be metabolism (so they can produce more virus) and motility (so they can get from victim to victim). You would want the virus to cause infected people to lose the ability to think independently (and therefore come up with a cure). Hey, aren’t we talking about internet trolls here,” Dr. Dinman told redOrbit.
Some conspiracy theorists say a zombie virus is already here and its known as LQP-79. This virus is allegedly a “mental virus infection” that derived from the 79th attempt at developing a “Lysergic Quinine Protein” in a bid to create a mind control substance. According to theories, the virus was supposed to be contained to training facilities, but not only have samples been released, the media is playing cover-up by hiding information on this story from the public. Obviously, this story has been proven time and time again to be a hoax, but it has become so popular that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged the term “LQP-79” had been one of the top searched terms on the government agency’s website in May 2012.
While LQP-79 is a “Hollywood-scenario,” rabies is a real virus that has to be contained by vaccinating pets yearly. The government has actually made laws requiring rabies vaccinations to ensure that pets do not help spread a virus that is commonly found in bats and raccoons. The concept of altering a rabies virus may seem like cheating when describing “real-world” scenarios, and one could even say it would take an evil genius to construct a virus as brutal as the one Dr. Dinman described. Maybe even an evil genius as brilliant as Mother Nature.
“Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better, or more creative. Like all serial killers, she can’t help but have the urge to get caught or what good would all those brilliant crimes do if no one takes the credit? So she leaves crumbs. Now the hard part, is seeing the crumbs, the clues there. Sometimes it’s in your thoughts where the most brutal part of a virus is. Turns out to be the chink in its armor. And she loves disguising her weaknesses as strengths. She’s a bitch.” — Andrew Fassbach, a character in the movie and novel World War Z, who is tasked with saving a world overwhelmed with zombies.
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