Science shoots down zombie hordes

If the rise of zombies in popular culture has got you wondering if a zombie apocalypse is just over the horizon, put your shotgun down - a University of Queensland expert has confirmed a zombie virus is scientifically and physiologically impossible.

Associate Professor Ian M Mackay is affiliated with UQ and specialises in finding and characterising viruses.

He said, scientifically speaking, a zombie virus similar to that depicted in popular culture just wouldn’t work.

To begin with, the accepted theory that a zombie virus would spread via body fluids or bites means the apocalypse would be over before it began.

“For it to be an apocalypse situation, which is what zombie hordes are typically associated with, it would have to be down to something that could spread very easily, so more likely an airborne virus” Associate Professor Mackay said.

“If it was a virus that was only spread by biting and fluid exchange it has a more limited transmission.”

“Generally zombies are very slow-moving, dormant creatures that are pretty easy to spot in most of the mythology, so they would be easy to contain, literally, by building a fence around them.”

For the virus to reach pandemic levels via biting, it would also have to be of the type that transforms the host into a super zombie, improving their physical strength and speed so they could spread the virus.

However, Associate Professor Mackay said this would be another scientific impossibility.

“The science is fatally flawed, as you would be if you were bitten by a zombie,” he said.

“Humans would need to undergo some big physical changes and physiologically that’s the real issue with zombies - they can run fast, and for ages, and not eat or sleep yet can keep going.

“And when they’re not eating people’s brains, they just sort of stay there dormant, and somehow don’t just fall apart into a pool of goo.”

“I think it’s safe to say that there is zero chance of a creature that is dead being animated in these ways; that’s really the biggest flaw with the whole mythos.”

“Unless there’s some virus hiding out there that can somehow massively change our physiology that we don’t yet know about of course.”



Science says this scenario is unlikely...


Don’t stop preparing your bunker yet though. If that scientifically impossible super zombie virus were to be discovered, the government wouldn’t be much help and you might need a back-up plan.

“If such a virus was spread by crazily strong running and jumping creatures that just wanted to be living vectors for it, I can’t see any way that a government could contain it,” Associate Professor Mackay said.

“It’s hard enough containing real-life viruses now, especially airborne ones.

“We have various methods but some viruses can spread far too quickly and sneakily for there to be a major impact on their movements from anything we can do, short of shutting down our borders and closing our doors, which doesn’t really work in today’s society, because then the world grinds to a halt.”

There would be a few plus sides to the fall of government, such as the rapid reduction of red tape in the search for a cure or a vaccine.

“You’d be able to work on it very quickly, and probably in a bunker,” Associate Professor Mackay said.

“We’d have to find out about what the virus was, try and find what cells it was binding to and identify its receptor.”

“We’d see if we had any drugs already in the cupboard that could interfere with it, if it was a known type of virus.”

“If there weren’t antiviral drugs, we’d be looking at developing them and a vaccine to it, which would mean having to work with a live virus in a lab somewhere, which would have a lot of risks. Perhaps that bunker would need to be locked from the outside too”

“If a vaccine was made then there’d be the issue of how you vaccinate what’s left of humanity given the time it’s taken to develop that.”

Currently vaccines take about six months to create and distribute, working quickly.

“There are a lot of new technologies that can speed that up, and make delivery faster and the clinical trials and marketing stages would be thrown out the window in favour of saving time, along with a lot of rules and regulations,” Associate Professor Mackay said.

 “Also, I don’t know what animal models you’d be testing a vaccine on – creating zombie mice or monkeys in the process would not be helpful? Eventually we’d have to go to people.”



According to science, the only zombies we are likely to see on campus are students during SWOTVAC.


While a zombie virus is not possible, Associate Professor Mackay said the depiction of zombies in popular culture was pretty similar to a very real threat – existing pandemic viruses.

“Watching the zombie spread in a movie is a really nice analogy for the sustained spread of human viruses, just sped up and with teeth” he said.

“You’ve got a virus that doesn’t have a brain, but wants to replicate itself, make more of itself so it can spread to the next host, so it can spread and spread and spread.”

“Viruses are unthinking little packages of protein and nucleic acids that have evolved through different versions to be the best one that can transmit to the next host. They’re very efficient.”

When Associate Professor Mackay is not indulging scientific theories on zombies, he focuses on human respiratory viruses, and on detecting, hunting and characterizing viruses that affect humans and has a keen academic interest in the emergence of the MERS coronavirus and new influenza viruses like H7N9. You can read more about his areas of interest on his blog Virology Down Under, on facebook or follow him on twitter @MackayIM.

Written by UQ Senior Communications Officer and zombie enthusiast Katie Rowney,

Last updated:
18 March 2016