From zombie movies like I am Legend and 28 Days Later, we are all familiar with the idea of a virus that spreads like a plague and reduces rational human beings into mindless cannibalistic monsters.
But could it really happen?
The truth is that zombies do not exist. All of these zombies stories are just that – stories to scare and entertain.
However scientist have discovered certain viruses which induce zombie-like behaviours.
The National Geographic documentary, “The Truth Behind Zombies” shows several scientists who claim existence of viruses that make people behave like zombies.
A disease close to that is rabies, a viral disease that causes people to go insane by infecting the central nervous system, as stated by Samrita Andreansky, a virologist at University of Miami in Florida.
Now if we try to imagine a rabies virus that can spread fast through air, we might see the start of a zombie apocalypse.
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Can Rabies Viruses Mutate?
Unlike zombies in movies where the result of a bite infection is immediate, the effects of rabies are slower yet deadlier. The first symptoms that a human has rabies can be confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paralysis – and these effects might take about ten days to even a year to occur.
It is advisable to treat it within a week or the symptoms might get ugly.
Rabies virus incubation time could be reduced significantly if the genetic code of the rabies goes through enough changes. There are various ways to get viral mutations, like mistakes when they are replicating genes or by getting damaged from ultraviolet light.
So the bottom line according to Andreasnsky is that a rabies virus with a high mutation rate has the ability to cause a zombie-like infection even within a few hours.
Now we’re getting into scary territory. The fact that scientists know how this could happen means there’s a chance of some brilliant-but-insane person off their meds to actually do it.
Flu Rabies Can Create Rage Virus
But before we can expect something dramatic like in the movies, rabies virus needs to be more contagious. Humans usually catch rabies after being bitten by animals with rabies infection – for example, a dog. But the infection normally stops there.
Due to the introduction of vaccinations for animals and people, rabies rarely infects people nowadays. Fewer people die because of rabies. In 2008, only two people were reportedly caught with rabies in the United States.
A faster and more lethal mode of transferring virus is through air, which is how influenza virus spreads. In order for rabies to be transmitted through air they would have to borrow traits from influenza virus.
By a process called reassortment or recombination, there is a way to swap pieces of genetic code from different forms of the same virus. But this is not a natural process, said Elankumaran Subbiah, a virologist at Virginia Tech.
It is not yet scientifically proven that traits are exchanged between two radically different viruses like the influenza and rabies. They are unable to share genetic information, as they are far different from each other, said Subbiah. Viruses cannot mix and match from different families and can only assemble parts that they have.
It’s theoretically possible—though extremely difficult—to create a hybrid rabies-influenza virus using modern genetic-engineering techniques, the University of Miami’s Andreansky said.
Could an Engineered Zombie Virus be Created?
According to Andreansky, if it were possible to mix a rabies virus transmitted through the air with measles virus to create personality changes, the encephalitis virus to increase body temperature, and the Ebola virus to bleed from your guts, then we might see the possibility of a virus that has deadly characteristics of a zombie.
It’s possible but highly unlikely today.
So here’s the thing. There is no such thing as a zombie virus. It is the stuff of scary stories. BUT natural mutation or malicious bio-engineering really could make it a terrifying reality – eventually. So why do we prepare for a zombie threat that will probably never appear? Zombies represent that scary “What if everything that could go wrong did go wrong?”
When we prepare as though a zombie virus could exist, we are better prepared for all of the more realistic and current threats.