Zombies are really popular these days.  The story goes that some virus transmissible by the bite of an infected person could transform us into an ugly, bleeding, aggressive, cannibalistic, slow walking/limping, strong,  sleepless shell of a human who is somewhat resistant to gun shot wounds and generally hard to kill.

The background here is that I studied microbiology in college, and while I’m not a virologist, I do have some knowledge of the subject matter.

So let’s take the “symptoms” of zombification one at a time:

Ugly: Can a pathogen make you ugly?  Yes.  Leprosy, The Plague…any general Necrosis.  It is possible for a pathogen to transform appearance over time.  Even the flu makes us look rougher than usual.  I will draw a line though:  If you look as bad as zombies generally do on TV, you’re about dead and bedridden….not likely chasing people around trying to eat them.

Bleeding:  Yes.  Pathogens can leave us with open sores.  No objections here.  Though we will come back to this one…because bleeding along with some of the other symptoms are not likely to go together.

Aggressive:  Not likely, though possible.  When we get sick with a pathogen we are generally listless and tired, not aggressive.  If we are bleeding and parts of our body are dying, then we are not aggressive…we are bedridden.

Cannibalistic:  No.  I do not know of any infection that makes us want to eat other people.  Rabies (which is active on the brain/nervous system) is not transmitted person to person.  Also, rabies kills us.  It does not reanimate us into zombies.

Slow walking/limping:  Not likely.  Any pathogen that works on the nervous system, as the zombie pathogen would have to, could cause difficulty with motor skills.  Parkinson’s disease (though genetic and not caused by a pathogen) is an example.  However, I know of no pathogen that would cause a limp and then stop progressing without treatment.   The fake zombie pathogen would be smarter if it left motor skills fully intact; easier to hunt down people and eat them (like vampires).  Infections generally progress; if it progressed to a limp then presumably it would later progress to completely shutting down the nervous system.

Strong:  I think generally on TV zombies seem to possess some kind of extra strength, though I’m not sure.  If so, then this is not possible in real life.  Infections don’t make us stronger; they make us weaker.  Also, extra strength and a limp do not go together.  If our nervous system is impaired and we are generally bleeding…we are unlikely to have extra strength.  This one is simply not feasible.  Zombies, if they existed, would be weak as shit.

Sleepless:  Sure.  Pathogens cause sleeplessness.  Also, I’m not sure whether zombies sleep or not.  It is not clear from watching TV if they need sleep (or food).

Shell of a human:  Yes, sort of.  Alzheimer’s disease can basically erase a person, so this is possible…however, Alzheimer’s takes years, not minutes like the potential zombie pathogen.  Bear in mind Alzheimer’s patients are pretty weak as well, not bleeding, extra-strong cannibals as zombies are.

Somewhat resistant to gun shot wounds and generally hard to kill: Uh….no.  If we are sick we are not generally hard to kill.  The young and healthy are as close as we get to “generally hard to kill”.  The immunocompromised are not resistant to gun shot wounds.

Let me make a few other points:

Incubation period:  It seems the zombie pathogen comes on quick, which is possible.  However, the moment of transition is often shown as being within seconds.  The veins go blue; the eyes glass over…almost instantaneously.  That is not likely.

Undead:  This is flatly impossible.  I am assuming the zombie pathogen is infecting us while we are alive.  There is nothing that kills us and then brings us back from the dead.  That is not the way pathogens work.  If there were to be a zombie virus, it would have to work on us while alive.  Re-animation is not possible.

If there were a zombie virus, where would it come from? The aggression and super-human strength, which are not really attributes of pathogens, suggests if there were such a thing it would come from military research gone wrong, not nature.  (As an aside, some TV shows/movies have suggested the zombie virus comes from longevity research.  I don’t think so.  There is already a set of cells that are immortal: cancer cells.  I would think a runaway longevity virus would cause cancer, which would kill us, not turn us into zombies).

Are zombie’s biologically possible?  No.  The combination of symptoms is not possible.  The body is designed to work best when it is healthy; any deviation from that will make the body less effective.  It is the extra strength, ability to take bullets, aggression, tirelessness, etc. that I take issue with.  The zombie virus seems to me like it would simply kills us.  If you describe a bleeding, physically altered, limping shell of a human…I say that person is on their death bed.  They will not rise up and chase after us.

Food for thought folks!  Sleep safer knowing the zombies are not coming!

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