Modern technology has reached a stage where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be created by almost anyone working in a biotech lab using fairly basic genetic engineering. Much of this involves either changing the way genes within an individual organism work or transferring genes from one organism into another. The organisms used in such work range from things as large as the cow to ones as small as viruses. A lot of genetic engineering is aimed at either modifying the organisms that cause infectious diseases or changing the way animals respond to them. As with any technological developments, there is always the possibility of unexpected consequences. With this in mind, I thought I’d ask myself a question: Could genetic engineering spark a zombie apocalypse?
Firstly, we have to consider the type of zombie that might be involved in any zombie apocalypse. There are two basic zombie ‘species: The traditional, risen-from-the-dead zombie and living humans infected with a disease that causes them to act like we’d expect a zombie to act (this type of zombie will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film 28 Days Later). There is no known disease caused by another organism that can cause the first type of zombie, and that alone makes it’s extremely unlikely (but not necessarily impossible) that a geneticist could engineer an organism do it. This is because bio-technicians, for the most part, only tinker with what is already available, such as turning off a gene here, modifying a gene there or moving a gene from one species to another, rather than creating anything truly new from scratch; so no existing template in nature means there’s very little they could do to create one.
The second type of zombie, a living human infected with a disease that makes them act like a zombie, is, rather frighteningly, much more feasible. There are many existing diseases and organisms that are known to get into the human brain and start influencing our behaviours. I’ve mentioned a few of them in a previous post that can be found here but top amongst these are diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis. There are also diseases and organisms out there that, while they don’t affect humans, can take control of other organisms in a variety of interesting, if gruesome, ways. This means that there’s loads of potential examples that a genetic engineer could use as the basis for creating something that would turn people into zombie-like infected.
So if it’s feasible, how could it actually happen? There’s two possible scenarios. The first is the intentional creation of a malicious disease agent. This would be where someone specifically sets out to create a pathogen that would turn living people into something that resembled flesh-eating zombies. You might think that bio-terrorists or so-called rogue states would be the biggest worry here, but lets face it the only people who really have the knowledge and tools to create such a thing are those in well-developed country with decades of experience in biowarfare. This means much more likely culprits are ones like the US, the UK, Russia and China. While these countries are bound by various international conventions, this doesn’t mean they, or someone working for them, isn’t dabbling around with such things. However, while they may be interested in creating an organism capable of turning humans into living zombies, it’s unlikely that they would intentionally make an infectious one (or at least one they didn’t have a vaccine for and you can’t make a vaccine without first making the disease). This is because there would be too great a risk of it causing ‘blow back’ as they’d have no control of it once it was released (this would be something any military end-user would consider to be very important). This means that while this may be the source of a few zombies here and there, it’s unlikely to be the source of a true zombie apocalypse caused by a genetically-engineered disease run amok.
The amount of resources required to successfully genetically engineer anything also means that it’s unlikely that a zombie apocalypse could be sparked by a single individual working alone and especially in a basement home lab. The equipment needed would cost too much and the chances are you’d need a large team of people working over a long period of time to get any where. While not impossible, this means we probably don’t need to worry about the disenfranchised mad scientist with a grudge against humanity toiling away in his shed.
The last scenario is, to me, the really scary one; it’s the accidental creation and release of an organism that would cause a highly infectious zombie-inducing disease. While genetic engineers might not like to admit it, they don’t know as much about how genes actually work as they think they do. This is why the use of gene therapy in medicine has never really lived up to its much-hyped potential and it also means there’s a lot of potential for them to make changes to an organism’s DNA that has unforeseen and unexpected consequences.
Take, for example, rabies. While the rabies virus has the power to turn people into zombie-like infected, it’s highly lethal and kills anyone infected with it. It also spreads very slowly. This means that while it can kill you, it doesn’t really have to power to create a zombie apocalypse. But rabies is exactly the type of disease that some well-meaning genetic engineer might start messing around with, perhaps to try to create a better vaccine or something like that (and remember rabies still kills around 50,000 people per year so there may well be people out there interested in doing this). If this had the unintended consequence of making it less lethal, you could end up with people stuck for the rest of their lives in the extremely aggressive and violent pre-terminal phase that would leave them pretty much indistinguishable from a zombie. If it also made the virus faster-acting, so that it took people over in hours rather than weeks (possibly by travelling in the blood stream rather than creeping along the nervous system), then we could have the making of a true zombie apocalypse. This is the apocalyptic scenario I used in For Those In Peril On The Sea, and you can find a detailed consideration of it here.
You could easily imagine similar scenarios involving the prions that cause mad cow disease, or something like toxoplasmosis or even syphilis (which as a very similar pre-terminal phase as rabies – not surprising since the viruses that cause these two very different diseases are closely related). It would only take small changes to make these types of diseases apocalypse-inducingly dangerous.
There’s also another option for the accidental creation of an agent capable of creating a zombie apocalypse. This is the use of short strands of RNA to stop genes working within an animal’s body (this technology’s called short interfering RNA or siRNA for short). It would be easy enough for someone to create a strand of RNA that was meant to do one thing in humans but ended up turning off some sort of control centre within the brain, or indeed ramping up centres associated with rage or other similar emotions. While such an agent might not be infectious as such, it might be possible for it to be passed from person to person through exchanges in body fluids. This is probably not that far from the scenario behind the rage ‘virus’ that featured in the movie 28 Days Later (and after all, what’s a virus but a short strand of RNA?).
Finally, we should consider how any agent, once created, makes it out into the world because without the release there can be no apocalypse. While it’s possible that it could be let out on purpose, for example as part of a field trial of a vaccine, it’s much more likely that any release would be accidental. People working in labs are never quite as careful as we’d hope they’d be (especially when working with really dangerous organisms) and the systems meant to keep us safe from what they’re cooking up aren’t infallible. This makes accidental releases of bio-engineered organisms feasible. However, in labs associated with commercial biotech firms, there’s probably a lot more checks and balances than in university labs, and they’re much less likely to be staffed by over-worked or hung-over grad students who aren’t concentrating quite as hard on containment as they should. There’s also many more university labs around and they tend to do much more blue sky and truly novel work, so I would give them the highest risk of accidentally sparking a zombie apocalypse.
So, while it’s unlikely that bio-technology could accidentally cause dead to rise and take over the world, it’s much more feasible that it could cause a disease outbreak that would turn humans into zombie-like infected. Of the possible scenarios considered for this, ones associated with the accidental creation and release of some genetically engineered organism are more likely that those associated with the intentional creation of a zombie virus by some state-sponsored weapons program. Unfortunately, this also makes it much more likely, especially when you consider how many people all around the world are now working in this field, how little they understand of the potential unintended consequences of what they’re doing and how little real regulation there is on this ever-expanding area of technology.
The over-all chances of this happening might be extremely low but the costs to humanity would be beyond measure so even a small chance is probably unacceptable.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.