A virulent rabies-influenza viral hybrid could lead to masses of infected victims turning into veritable zombies. The hapless former humans would exhibit all the classic features of the horror movies: the would become lumbering, mindless monsters with murderous tendencies and the ability to transform others into shuffling zombies with merely a bite.
Though the dead will not return to life, it's the next closest thing.
This gruesome possibility is discussed (quite calmly) by Samita Andreansky, a virologist at Florida's University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. Andreansky is one of the guests interviewed on the National Geographic special documentary "The Truth About Zombies" that aired during October 2010.
Andreansky explains that combining the rabies virus with a mutated flu virus could create the basis for a worldwide zombie pandemic.
Zombies are possible
Zombies lumbering up and down city streets are only found in lurid Hollywood horror flicks, right? Well, so far that's been true. But viruses mutate incessantly and many things cause them to mutate. Exposure to various chemicals, heat, cold, wetness, dryness, air pressure, the ready availability of hosts and even the intensity of ultraviolet rays can and probably will cause mutation. The process of natural selection also will cause viruses to mutate based on availability of nutrients, response to the body's immune system and mistakes in replication.
The genetic code is easily mutable and adaptable. Virus's incubation periods have been known to change dramatically. And, as Andreansky is quick to point out, if a rabies-flu hybrid ever occurs then zombiehood could be a reality.
The rabies infection
For centuries its been known that rabies are contracted in humans from the bite of a rabies infected animal. Incidents of the disease have dropped dramatically in the western world thanks to domesticated animals being vaccinated against the sickness. Despite the fall off in incidents of rabies, some are infected each year by encounters with rabid bats, skunks and squirrels, among other wild creatures.
Rabies is treatable and as long as treatment is given in a timely manner, the bite from a rabies infected animal is rarely fatal. Untreated, death is a certainty within a week after symptoms appear.
The rabies virus will incubate inside the body for weeks or months. Sometimes it takes a full year before symptoms surface. Anxiety, mental confusion, mild madness followed by vivid hallucinations and paralysis consume the victim until a wretched death follows.
The victim will literally foam at the mouth and twist into pretzel shapes sometimes dislocating joints and cracking ribs.
Mutation to airborne zombie-virus
To create a fast-spreading zombie pandemic similar to the ones depicted in popular zombie movies, the rabies virus would have to mutate into an airborne contagion. That could be accomplished by rabies viruses "trading" some of their genetic material with influenza viruses.
The newly embedded genetic code would then allow them to propagate much faster and infect people through skin contact or through the air like cold and flu viruses are transmitted. This process is called recombination. Virologists are very familiar with it as it happens constantly and is the reason why new strains of flu come from the Far East and other parts of the world every year.
The "rage virus" and "28 Days Later"
Max Mogk, head of the Zombie Research Society, is also interviewed in the National Geographic documentary. Mogk shares this cheery tidbit: "All rabies has to do is go airborne, and you have the rage virus."
The 'rage virus' is a fictitious disease that's accidentally released and goes airborne infecting millions. This delightful scenario is the focus of the cult film hit "28 Days Later."
Here humanity, trapped on the quarantined British Isles, find themselves exposed to a virus that spreads like wildfire among the cities and countryside. Most people become rabid, psychotic zombies termed the "Infected."
Not likely to happen, but...
Virtually all virologists agree that two disparate viruses such as rabies and influenza could swap genetic material in a recombinant way. Although they assure everyone that such an event is unheard of, some recall the strange episode of the Swine flu outbreak that seemed to have genetic markers of swine flu, avian flu and a third type not easily identified. At the time, the strangeness of the virus led some biologists to wonder aloud if it had escaped from a bio-warfare laboratory.
Genetically engineered zombie viruses
The speculation over the Swine flu leads to the question of genetic manipulation in the laboratory. Could some "mad scientist" actually create a zombie-flu virus?
Experts admit creating such a monstrous thing is possible. But they hurry to qualify that admission with assurances that creating such a hybrid would be a monumental task.
Andreansky postulates in the documentary about the possibility of genetically engineering a viral zombie pandemic.
"Sure, I could imagine a scenario where you mix rabies with a flu virus to get airborne transmission," she says, "a measles virus to get personality changes, the encephalitis virus to cook your brain with fever and throw in the Ebola virus to cause you to bleed from your guts."
Truly insane. Who would ever initiate a bio-engineering project like that?
"Combine all these things," she continues,"and you'll [create] something like a zombie virus."
Again, who in their right mind would ever fund a bio-engineering project like that?
...a military bio-warfare lab?