When making 2016 predictions, a real life zombie virus may seem like it belongs in an article about The Walking Dead spoilers, not in a science article. As it turns out, the United States Department of Defense is making its own predictions for 2016, and they are sinking money into researching virus bioweapon defenses now that making a deadly artificial virus is feasible. While no one is talking - yet - about starting a zombie apocalypse in 2016, what is possible with bioterrorism is just as scary.
In a related report by the Inquisitr, a real drug called the Devil's Breath went viral on social media since some claimed that scopolamine could be used by criminals to start a zombie apocalypse similar to The Walking Dead. But is this idea just hype, or should we fear the walking dead?
Doctor Tara C. Smith, a researcher at the Smith Emerging Infections Laboratory at Kent State University, asked a similar question in a recent article for Quartz. As a professor specializing in infectious diseases, Smith was asked to evaluate just how realistic The Walking Dead and other zombie fiction are in comparison to real life.
Both Resident Evil and World War Z did very poorly on the "realism score" scale, with the T-virus bioweapons scoring a -20 out of 10 and Brad Pitt getting a zero. The video game The Last Of Us actually did the best, scoring a 7 out of 10, but since humans infected by the insect-like fungal pathogen technically are not zombies, I personally think the game doesn't belong on the list.
28 Days Later and its "rage" virus scored a 5 out of 10, mostly because the incubation period for the virus was way too rapid. In real life, virus infections take at least 24 hours to replicate enough to cause symptoms, although at least the "rage" virus did not require death for reanimation.
The Walking Dead has the death issue holding it back, with a 4 out of 10 realism score, but what Dr. Smith found most objectionable is how the ill-explained contagion managed to spread to every single human in the world.
"We don't all eat the same food or use the same water supplies. Airborne release of a contaminant could be coordinated in a number of large cities at once. But it would take the contaminant considerably more time to spread to rural areas. Even if this could be accomplished, you'd still expect some small percentage of the population to be resistant to the virus and avoid becoming infected."It would just figure if TWD's Daryl Dixon is immune to everything but Lucille... (Click the Walking Dead spoilers article if you don't get that dark joke.)
Artificial Virus ResearchSo, if we must make our 2016 predictions related to a real zombie virus, then we must look at the recent advances in gene therapy using artificial viruses. Last year, I reported that researchers from Wageningen UR successfully developed an artificial virus for the first time. Fiction often assumes that a zombie virus is created accidentally, and the company even noted, "[T]he process of rendering natural viruses harmless still requires improvement. Unintended side effects have been a problem."
In 2015, researchers at the Nanobiology Unit from the UAB Institute of Biotechnology and Biomedicine took the next step by creating an artificial virus which can penetrate target cells and release DNA fragments. One of their own 2016 predictions says their approach could be used to target cancer cells directly. According to Phys.org, they claim their "achievement represents an alternative with no biological risk to the use of viruses in gene therapy." Of course, claiming there's no risk is what every fictional scientist says right before a zombie apocalypse breaks out.
How To Make A Zombie VirusWhen making predictions for 2016, what humanity really needs to be worried about is not accidents, but viral bioweapons based upon an artificial virus. A real zombie virus WMD 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 bloodlust could be initiated by targeted changes to brain proteins, although if the victim is suffering from all those other symptoms you would presume they would not represent a threat to other humans. Fictional accounts allow zombies the miraculous ability to survive for years with their bodies in tatters. A real zombie virus used as a bioweapon would probably focus on recreating the symptoms of 28 Days Later, not The Walking Dead.
The Threat Of Viral Bioweapons And Bioterrorism Is RealVladimir Nikiforov, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency' Institution of Advanced Training, 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." Mackenzie Foley of Dartmouth University believes genetically engineered pathogens could be used for assassination, although a biological WMD could remain "dormant for an extended amount of time until triggered externally to cause disease."
It is those types of realistic scenarios that has the U.S. Department of Defense preparing for a deadly new biological war. They awarded a $7.6 million grant to scientists in the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) based upon developing countermeasures to bioterrorism.
According to Pharmaceutical Processing, their main focus is studying alphaviruses, a group of 30 different viruses which are normally transmitted by mosquitoes. In real life, there have been periodic outbreaks of deadly encephalitis viruses, so they will "develop therapies and protection against diseases that threaten global health."
"These viruses could be dangerous as bioweapons, so it is important that we work toward developing therapies against them," said Dr. Amy L. Hartman, principal investigator on the project. "Our goal is to better understand the biological mechanisms through which the virus harms people when it is inhaled, determine the proper timing for giving antiviral medications to people infected with the virus, and test potential therapies so that, if successful, they'll be ready for human clinical trials."
Mathematical Studies On A Real Zombie OutbreakThe work of CVR may also help in regards to natural outbreaks, but what they are primary concerned with is weaponized viruses. The goal is to "accelerate development of drugs and vaccines against alphaviruses," which would be very important if a zombie apocalypse ever did occur based upon a bioweapon.
Mathematicians at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University in Canada mathematically modeled out multiple scenarios based upon a zombie virus outbreak. Even in scenarios where zombies were quarantined, the zombies were only eradicated assuming the initial number of infected was small before the quarantine took effect. The scenario where a zombie cure was invented still resulted in humanity's population being decimated.
In the end, the only real solution was the U.S. military.
"An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead. While aggressive quarantine may eradicate the infection, this is unlikely to happen in practice. A cure would only result in some humans surviving the outbreak, although they will still coexist with zombies. Only ever-increasing attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication, assuming the available resources can be mustered in time.... Thus, if zombies arrive, we must act quickly and decisively to eradicate them before they eradicate us."Thus, a year later it still makes sense to end this article on 2016 predictions about zombies with this quote:
"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.'"