Out: Covid. In: Rabid zombification

Just in case you thought 2021 wasn’t going to live up to the preceding year’s level of weirdness, a new study out of Italy might ramp up the craziness a bit further. Everyone is obviously aware of the novel coronavirus pandemic currently wreaking havoc all over the world, but we’re eventually going to get it under control. So what’s the next plague we should be worried about? According to a medical team from the University of Verona and the University Hospital of Parma, it might be rabies. But we’re not talking about the garden-variety strain of rabies that you might contract from a dog or a bat. This would be a mutated strain that could spread like the coronavirus and turn people into hyper-aggressive “zombies.” Let’s see what this is about, shall we? (The Debrief)

A new Italian study cautions that the rabies virus could mutate, either naturally or artificially, into an “apocalyptic” disease that turns humans into hyper-aggressive “zombies.”

Admittedly, the paper approaches the theoretical idea that, since the rise of COVID-19, the world must begin “to think-out-of-the-box” when it comes to large-scale epidemics. While rabies will not cause a severe zombie apocalypse today, the paper argues that “it would be theoretically possible by either natural or artificial virus engineering” to produce a viral strain of rabies that could transmit human to human. It is possible that the virus could be tweaked to incubate faster, have “enhanced neuro-toxicity,” and “a predisposition towards developing highly aggressive behaviors.”

The good news is that this hasn’t happened. At least not yet or not that we know of. But after all we’ve learned over the past year about viral mutations, bats, dogs, secret Chinese labs, and all the rest, I suppose pretty much anything is on the table now. Even more disturbing is the report’s inclusion of a phrase speculating that the rabies virus could mutate “either naturally or artificially.” The word “artificial” implies human tampering with the existing strains. Is anyone really crazy enough to do that?

The reason we’ve never had a global outbreak of rabies taking the form of a pandemic is that the known varieties of the virus don’t transmit from humans to humans, or at least not very easily. The disease is caused by the Rabies Lyssavirus. The two most common sources of transmission to humans come from dogs and bats. (Again… didn’t we hear something about bats in the Chinese wet markets?) But if the virus mutates in a way that allows it to infect the respiratory tract and could then be transmitted through the air, all bets would pretty much be off.

But what about that zombie business? It turns out there are two forms of rabies that infect humans. One is paralytic rabies, characterized by victims experiencing their bodies slowly shutting down. Left untreated, the patient will lose consciousness and die shortly thereafter. But the second (and more common) type is “furious rabies.” The linked report describes this version as causing patients to “become hyperactive, excitable, and, at times, aggressive.” It doesn’t specifically say anything about suddenly developing a hunger for human brains, but it still sounds fairly “zombie-like” to me.

Fortunately, the study’s authors conclude by stating that this scenario isn’t terribly likely. But they also can’t rule it out entirely. The more we tinker around with genetic engineering and potential bioweapons, the more we increase the chances that something will go horribly wrong, either through a laboratory accident or the intentional release of a biological weapon. And that very real possibility remains high on my personal list of the most likely ways we’ll eventually wipe out our own species. (Though the robot apocalypse is a close second.)