Night of the Living Virus
In George A. Romero’s classic movie of 1968, Night of the Living Dead, speculation was raised that the birth of the zombie hordes was possibly triggered by the actions of a U.S. spacecraft. While visiting the planet Venus, the craft, it was surmised, became bathed in radiation. Then, on its return to Earth, the craft let loose that same radiation upon an unsuspecting populace. The outcome was nothing less than the rise of the staggering, flesh-eating dead. Is it truly feasible that such a thing could actually occur in the real world?
It’s highly unlikely – in the extreme, to say the absolute very least – that exposure to radiation could provoke any kind of violent, cannibalistic, zombie-like behavior. The possibility that a returning spacecraft might unwittingly unleash hazardous extraterrestrial materials on our planet, however, is not at all an impossibility. In fact, dealing with just such a potentially catastrophic event has already been planned for.
In a fictional format, at least, such a scenario was famously presented in the 1969 book The Andromeda Strain (which was written by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park and Congo fame), and in the subsequent 1971 movie spin-off of the same name. Although zombies do not appear in either the novel or the film, pretty much everything else does.
An American space-probe – as it returns to planet Earth and crashes in the wilds of Arizona – unleashes a lethal virus of extraterrestrial origins. Matters soon escalate in ominous, doomsday-like fashion: The U.S. Government struggles to find an antidote. The virus threatens to wipe out the entire Human Race. And…well, you get the apocalyptic picture.
While The Andromeda Strain is just a highly entertaining story of disturbing and thought-provoking proportions, it does, rather incredibly, have its real life counterparts. According to Article IX of The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, that was collectively signed at Washington, London, and Moscow on January 27, 1967, and that was entered into force on October 10 of that year:
“In the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, States Parties to the Treaty shall be guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty.”
The document continues: “States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter [Note from Nick: italics mine, for emphasis] and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”
It becomes very clear from studying the available data of that particular era that there was indeed official concern about a deadly – albeit admittedly theoretical – alien virus running wild on the Earth and provoking a worldwide pandemic – one which just might escalate, to the point where it could possibly wipe out each and every one of us.
But what if that same pandemic didn’t just kill us, but provoked something along the lines of a real-life zombie apocalypse? No, we are not talking about a Night of the Living Dead-style scenario involving radiation and the recently deceased, but something far more akin to the scenario that played out in the movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later.
In combined fashion, the films tell of how the UK becomes overwhelmed by what is known as the “Rage Virus.” The infected are not the dead returned from the grave, however. Rather, and as a result of infection from a virus that spreads incredibly quickly, an untold number of British people are transformed into deranged, psychotic killers. Although, thankfully, the “Rage Virus” is merely fictional, we should consider the following…
In the mid-1980s, the first signs of a terrifying condition began to surface in the heart of the British countryside. It was a condition that targeted cattle and made them behave in distinctly zombie-like fashion, before finally killing the animals in deeply distressing fashion. Its official name is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Unofficially, but far more infamously, it is known as Mad Cow Disease.
BSE is caused by a prion – a protein-based agent that attacks and affects the normal function of cells. Worse still, just like the fictional zombie virus of so many movies, prion-inducing BSE is utterly unstoppable and incurable. By 1987, the British Government recognized that it had not just a problem on its hands, but a major problem, too. Not only that: the government acted in wholly unforgivable fashion by secretly putting the beef industry, the economy, and profits way ahead of public safety.
In the same way that, in typically fictional format, infected people feed upon the uninfected survivors of the zombie apocalypse, very much the same can be said about the origins of BSE: it was spread by cows eating cows.
To the horror of the British public – who had previously, and utterly outrageously, been kept in the dark – it was finally revealed by the government that, for years, the discarded remains of millions of cattle that had been put to death in British slaughterhouses had been ground to a pulp and used to create cattle-feed. It was, for the animal kingdom at least, Soylent Green come to hideous reality. And that’s when the problems started.
It quickly became very easy to spot a zombie-cow: they shuffled rather than walked; their personalities began to change; they exhibited behavior that varied from confusion to outright rage; and they quickly became unmanageable under normal circumstances.
As the crisis grew, an even more terrifying development surfaced: the infection jumped to the human population, in the form of what is termed Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, or CJD, which can also provoke sudden outbursts of rage. The utterly panicked British government took the only option it felt was available.
With close to an estimated 200,000 cattle infected, officialdom decided to play things safe by systematically wiping out no less than 4.4 million cows, all across the nation. While such actions were seen as horrific, they were also perceived as necessary to ensure that chaos and death did not spread even further. For some, however, it was all too little and too late.
Although the cannibalizing process was brought to a halt by the government in the late-1980s, around 200 British people have since died from what is termed variant CJD (or vCJD), the result of eating BSE-contaminated meat. On top of that, the significant increase in Alzheimer’s disease in the UK in recent years has given rise to the highly disturbing theory that many of those presumed to have Alzheimer’s have been misdiagnosed. They may be suffering from vCJD.
Well, wouldn’t an autopsy show evidence of vCJD? Yes, it would, if the brain of the deceased individual was examined carefully. Indeed, studying the brains of the dead, or testing the blood, are the only sure ways to fully confirm vCJD. But here’s the thing: most people suspected of having Alzheimer’s are not tested for vCJD. If a person has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, then their death is usually attributed to complications arising from the disease, rather than anything stranger or suspicious.
In other words, in most patients where an Alzheimer’s diagnosis has already been put forward, there is no autopsy. I know this, as my own mother died of Alzheimer’s. Since she had been diagnosed with the disease, an autopsy was not perceived as being necessary after her death to check for something else that might have led to similar symptoms. Thus, with a lack of large-scale autopsying of presumed Alzheimer’s victims, we have no real way of knowing, exactly, how many may have been misdiagnosed.
Here we see the disastrous damage that a condition of wholly terrestrial origins can provoke across an entire nation – and, more importantly, how that same condition can significantly affect the minds of both people and animals. Perhaps something of extraterrestrial origins could do far worse.
Preparing for the sudden surfacing of an alien-originated pandemic may not mean that government officials are also secretly anticipating that a 28 Days Later-like apocalypse will be far behind. On the other hand, there’s nothing to suggest they haven’t secretly pondered on just such a possibility…