All that stands between the continued existence of modern life and total societal collapse is the mutation of some virus, microbe, or perhaps even fungus.
That’s the starting line to many a sci-fi or horror story, but in a sense, it’s very true — a massive pandemic is one of the greatest threats to human life, by many calculations a bigger risk to the average person than something like terrorism. Perhaps for that reason, it’s also one of our most popular fictional tropes, where it often becomes the story of some kind of zombie pandemic.
Obviously (and thankfully), there’s no real-world zombie plague. But our fictional depictions of these scenarios aren’t totally inaccurate (just mostly), and we can learn a lot about the real world science behind these fictions by taking a close look at them.
UK biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust has just released a fantastic video series breaking down the science behind the video game “The Last of Us,” inviting scientists who work in microbiology, epidemiology, and with vaccines to talk about the game with a philosopher and a game critic.
It’s really cool.
**Spoilers for “The Last of Us” follow, both in the text and in the videos.**
One main YouTube video provides a good overall look at what they think about the game:
Let’s get this out of the way: Of course, the concept itself is not very realistic. Hey, it’s fiction, that’s ok!
In the story, people begin to be infected by some sort of fungus that infects their brains and causes them to try to bite other humans, spreading the fungus, which takes over their bodies and turns them into ever-more-gruesome fungal creatures. So, not technically “zombies” necessarily, but close enough.
The disease spreads
As vaccinologist Christine Rollier of the University of Oxford points out, most fungal infections only cause serious disease in immunocompromised humans. Though clearly, she points out, the effect of this fungus is the standard one in many zombie stories — it’s like a rapidly spreading particularly deadly form of rabies.
And interestingly, not everything about the fictional fungus is too far from reality. In one of the ten supplementary videos, Elizabeth Beardsmore, an epidemiologist at Teeside University, points out that the fungus seems to specifically infect humans but not other animals. Different version of the real fungus that the fictional cordyceps fungus is based on only infect specific species (this is normal for many pathogens). And famously, the real Ophiocordyceps fungus takes over an ant’s brain, manipulating it into moving to a place where it will spread spores and infect other members of the ant colony. Kind of like a zombie ant.
In “The Last of Us,” just like in “The Walking Dead,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and other postapocalyptic fiction, some of the biggest risks that protagonists Joel and Ellie face aren’t inhuman creatures — other people are often far more dangerous. And the sudden breakdown of social order in panic is something that philosopher James Wilson of University College London says the game captures quite well.
“One thing I think they have captured quite powerfully is that order in society is quite fragile,” Wilson points out. If everyone panics simultaneously, restoring what we think of as societal behaviour might be no easy task. And in a bonkers pandemic that’s this bad, it might not be possible at all.
Sure, a scenario like this might not be particularly realistic, but it helps illustrate our fears and does highlight the aspects of society that perhaps seem more stable than they are. And this also allows us to take a look at the pretty-crazy science behind the idea, which is also pretty fun.
Of course, this isn’t the first investigation into what would happen in a “real” zombie-like scenario. Researchers have speculated on whether or not it’d be possible to engineer some sort of zombie-like virus (it would be very hard), the CDC has a “Zombie Preparedness Plan” (an educational tool), and researchers have calculated the best places to hide in case of a zombie breakout (a good way to model disease spread).
But, incredibly unlikely as it is, could it ever happen?
“Well, anything’s possible isn’t it,” says Beardsmore, laughing. “Who knows?”
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