Out of the many predictions for 2015, a zombie apocalypse virus probably seems like a bad joke considering the recent Ebola epidemic. Unfortunately, a bioweapon made using an artificial virus has recently become feasible, making the possibility of a zombie virus seem real.
In a related report by the Inquisitr, if the Ebola virus did become airborne, this feat would require genetic engineering, since evolutionary theory seems to indicate the scenario would not happen naturally.
When it comes to a real zombie apocalypse, "naturally" is the key word. Most fiction, including The Walking Dead, always seem to endow zombies with an amazing metabolic ability to survive for years at a time even as their bodies fall to pieces. A real zombie virus would likely only allow the infected to survive for days or a few weeks at the most, and unlike in the movies, a quarantine would be effective instead of forestalling the inevitable wave of the shambling undead. So that's the good news.
The bad news is that even the Ebola virus in its current form could be used as bioweapon. While it's not something anyone wants to consider, one of the potential 2015 predictions is that terrorists like the Islamic State may attempt to create an Ebola epidemic in the United States by drinking the virus and then purposefully spreading it far and wide. In addition, Vladimir Nikiforov, head if the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency' Institution of Advanced Training, believes the current Ebola virus could be weaponized.
"Actually, this virus can be used in the form of a spray, which can lead to very big trouble. Biological weapons are nothing like a nuclear bomb… In order to make a nuclear bomb, one would require a uranium mine, a nuclear power plant and so on, [but biological weapons] are made in a small laboratory, which can be easily camouflaged. You know that there are rogue states. And here's the thing, I can't guarantee that some country isn't preparing something of the kind."
According to Reuters, Nikiforov fears a "large number of horrific deaths" if "a group manages to harness the virus as a power then explodes it as a bomb in a highly populated public area." Unfortunately, as medical research on artificial viruses continues to progress, it's possible a zombie apocalypse virus could be made. Researchers from Wageningen UR successfully developed an artificial virus for the first time, and it doesn't take any 2015 predictions to guess what their next step is... they've already told us.
"This first generation of artificial viruses was found to be as effective as the current methods for delivering DNA to host cells based on synthetic molecules. But the great precision by which DNA molecules are packaged in the artificial virus offers many possibilities to now also build in other virus tricks, the researchers write. In the future, these techniques can hopefully lead to safe and effective methods for delivering new generations of pharmaceuticals, especially in gene therapy. Moreover, these artificial viruses can also be developed for the many other applications in which viruses are now being used in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology."
Writing for the Dartmouth University website, Mackenzie Foley makes predictions for 2015 that few want to consider, pointing to how "a recent surge in genetic understanding, as well as a rapid growth in computational power, has allowed genetic engineering to play a larger role in the development of new bioweapons." Up until recently, biological weapons have been limited to natural pathogens, but genetically engineered pathogens "could be made safer to handle, easier to distribute, capable of ethnic specificity, or be made to cause higher mortality rates."
Although it's hoped the "effects must be treatable for those who are implementing the bioweapon," attackers may design a "stealth virus" that remains "dormant for an extended amount of time until triggered externally to cause disease." These bioweapons could be designed to induce cancer-like symptoms or to initiate programmed cell death. It's even possible a bioweapon could be used as an assassination tool, since an artificial virus designed to target a specific person's genome could "spread through populations showing minimal or no symptoms, yet it would be fatal to the intended target."
In real life, viruses do not typically mix and match capabilities from different families. An artificial zombie virus could attempt to simulate the effects of the fictional disease by using a flu virus to allow airborne transmission, a measles and rabies virus to introduce delirium and abnormal behavior, and the encephalitis virus to create a high fever. Since the goal is a horror movie, genetic code from the Ebola virus would cause hemorrhagic fever symptoms, including bleeding from the eyes, ear, nose, mouth, and rectum.
The hard part would be introducing the bloodlust common to all zombie movies, but back in 2012, a Florida man named Rudy Eugene acted like a real life zombie.
Witnesses said, "The guy just stood, his head up like that, with pieces of flesh in his mouth. And he growled."
Initial reports falsely claimed bath salts or some other drug were at fault for this zombie-like behavior, but it's still possible an artificial virus could attempt to mimic similar effects on the brain.
Besides an artificial virus intended to be a bioweapon, there's also the zombie apocalypse scenario envisioned by 28 Days Later, where a modified version of the Ebola virus intended for medical purposes eventually transformed into the zombie Rage virus. This scenario is not completely hypothetical, since Exxell BIO, Inc. is currently working to produce an Ebola vaccine based upon a live, chemically-inactivated rabies virus containing Ebola glycoprotein within its structure. According to a report from the Federal Register of the United States Government, "further development is a major challenge based on safety concerns."
While no one is talking about accidentally creating a zombie virus, even Wageningen UR notes, "[T]he process of rendering natural viruses harmless still requires improvement. Unintended side effects have been a problem."
In the end, the zombie apocalypse nightmare envisioned by Hollywood will likely remain limited to fiction, but bioweapons based upon artificial viruses make for nightmarish predictions for 2015 that are worse than any horror movie.
"There are those who say: 'the First World War was chemical; the Second World War was nuclear; and that the Third World War – God forbid – will be biological.'"