In 2002, Hollywood released the first one Resident Evil adaptation of the wildly popular video game, starting a film and television franchise that still continues twenty years later. But there’s one aspect of his legacy that deserves a closer look today: the film’s fictional T-virus.
A futuristic entity known as the Umbrella Corporation is building a viral bioweapon in its laboratory. Soon, the virus escapes through the facility’s air ducts and causes a massive outbreak of disease that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. The protagonist and the rest of her crew fight zombies to prevent the disease from spreading to the outside world.
To be clear: The virus isn’t real (and neither are the zombies), but is it plausible? (Spoilers ahead Resident Evil (2002).)
Reel Science it is one Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Are zombie viruses real?
If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, here’s a quick recap of what the virus does: It turns people into mindless, bloodthirsty zombies with only basic motor functions, little intelligence, and no working memory. According to the film, these human zombies are “driven by the basest of impulses, the most basic of needs: the need for food.”
Says William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Inverse: “There is no such virus that can do that.”
However, some real-life viruses resemble certain aspects of zombie-making, if you will. Some infectious diseases cause inflammation of the brain and affect our thinking and behavior – a condition known as encephalitis.
“You could have brain tumors growing that make you do unusual things – they change your personality. Make your reasoning not very effective, even causing seizures,” says Schaffner.
Some scientists have likened Rabies – which people can contract when an infected animal bites or scratches a person – to a zombie-like virus because of its ability to cause rage and confusion, but again, that’s because rabies causes encephalitis.
The trailer for Resident Evil (2002).
“I couldn’t think of a virus that reduced you to very primitive functions, like foraging,” says Schaffner.
Donald J. Alcendor, assistant professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says Inverse there is a little-discussed virus that shares some characteristics with typical zombie viruses.
This virus is the John Cunningham virus (JC for short). It is a type of polyomavirus, which is a family of DNA viruses found in mammals and birds. The majority of adults have been exposed to the JC virus and don’t even know it.
“If your immune system is intact, this is a virus that you will carry throughout your life. And it shouldn’t be a problem for you,” says Alcendor.
The reason most of us have never heard of JC virus is that the immune system of healthy adults can usually fight it off. But immunocompromised adults can’t fight off the virus as easily. In their bodies, the JC virus evolves from a dormant to an active state and begins to replicate, causing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML).
“I couldn’t think of a virus that reduced you to very primitive functions”
This condition destroys myelin, which forms a protective layer around the neurons in your brain. The person may display some characteristics that we usually associate with zombies, such as personality changes, clumsiness and stumbling, paralysis and grunting due to speech communication challenges.
“If you’re thinking of something that would make you zombie-like, I’d say the closest thing that comes to mind would be infection with the JC virus,” says Alcendor.
It is important to emphasize that people with JC do not go around attacking people like zombies. most are bedridden. However, it is still a dangerous virus for those it infects, as there is no real cure.
“I would say 50 percent of people diagnosed with PML are dead within three to six months of diagnosis,” Alcendor adds.
Is the T virus realistic?
Here’s a description of the virus from the movie, which explains how it regenerates the body after infection:
Even in death, hair and nails continue to grow. New cells are produced and the brain itself holds a small electrical charge…the T virus provides a huge jolt to both cell growth and those traces of electrical impulses. In simple words: it rejuvenates the body.
To put it simply: Real life viruses cannot bring the dead back to life.
“We don’t know if anyone who has been infected with the virus has been restored to life in some form,” says Schaffner.
The T-virus’s mechanism for stimulating cell growth—which causes infected humans to mutate into an even more terrifying being when they feed on human flesh, or “fresh DNA,” as the film puts it—is also wildly unrealistic.
Viruses “don’t encourage cell growth,” Schaffner says, adding that they “usually destroy them.”
The T virus and Covid-19
SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid-19 — cannot turn people into zombies. But there are some similarities between the T virus and SARS-CoV-2 that you might not have thought about.
“Covid is not likely to make you a zombie, but what it can do is it can put you in a cage in acute respiratory distress,” says Alcendor.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison we can make between the two viruses is how they spread. The T virus can switch from liquid to airborne to blood-based transmission depending on its environment, making it highly contagious.
While Covid-19 is primarily an airborne disease, surface transmission is still possible, though extremely unlikely. Exposure to respiratory fluids also spreads the disease. To be clear: Covid-19 is not a blood-borne disease, but it can reproduce in blood cells.
So it’s not at all unusual for viruses to spread through multiple routes of transmission, although a better comparison to the T virus might be norovirus, which Schaffner says is a “highly infectious” virus that can be transmitted by various ways that involve personal contact.
But the transmission route of a real virus is less likely to mutate depending on the environment — unlike the T virus. The Covid-19 virus mutated to become more contagious, but it didn’t change the way it infected people. But other viruses have changed modes of transmission. The mode of transmission of the Zika virus – which doctors previously thought was spread only through mosquitoes – has mutated so that it can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
“We had never heard of a mosquito-borne virus that could also be transmitted through sexual intimacy,” explains Schaffner.
But it would be unlikely that an airborne SARS-CoV-2 could mutate to change its transmission routes as easily as the T virus, giving us some peace of mind in this pandemic.
“I couldn’t think of a virus that could easily be mutated to have a radically different mode of transmission,” says Schaffner.
Resident Evil (2002) is now streaming on Netflix.