How will the zombie virus spread? Hint: probably not by bites.

Redneck with a gun.

Way to be a hero, Cletus. You remembered to buy all the ammunition in the county but not to wash your hands.

I have another zombie article posted.  In this one I lament that virtually nobody is preparing for the virus in the form we’re likely to see.

One of the biggest problems facing anybody in a zombie scenario is that there are so many unknowns.  This is exacerbated by the fact that so many people are planning for the inevitable based on what they’ve learned from works of fiction.  For instance, how do zombies make other zombies?  By biting, right?  And how do you know?  Because that’s the way it is in all the zombie movies and video games.

Well survivor, that shit ain’t science.  The whole point of evolution, whether it’s evolution of mammals or viruses, is that lifeforms adapt.  There are certainly diseases that are more successful than others because of they way they transmit.  Herpes is more widespread than rabies because biting is a generally crappy way to spread a disease, while lots of people have sex.  The common cold infects pretty much everybody every year because it is transmitted through the air or by contaminated surfaces, it doesn’t even care if you’re having sex with someone like herpes does.

What this means is that the zombie virus is far more likely to be spread via the means of avian flu than by rabies.  So how does this change your plans?  Once again, like with nuclear reactors, just because you don’t see any zombies doesn’t mean you’ll be safe.  Do you ever see those full suits the CDC wears when they’re in an area with an outbreak of some new disease?  You know – the ones that cover their whole bodies with an air-filtering helmet reminiscent of Darth Vader?  That’s because the virus could be in the air or on the handrail they just touched.

Go read the whole thing for my pantented three steps to make sure you’re safe from airborne infection.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Epinephrine

    Herpes is more widespread than rabies because biting is a generally
    crappy way to spread a disease, while lots of people have sex.

    Citation needed…

    Bear in mind, rabies infects pretty much all warm-blooded animals, and a lot of animals animals have very good bites. I am willing to bet that rabies is far more widespread than herpes.

    • JTEberhard

      Looks like about 40,000 rabies cases each year ( to 776,000 genital herpes cases each year (

      • Epinephrine

        That’s based on suspected human exposures, though – the rabies virus is much more successful than that. The most cases you could possibly get of herpes is roughly 7 billion (every person), but you could easily exceed that in animals. My point was simply that you can’t say that rabies is less effective at spreading – it gets everywhere, in nearly every warm-blooded species. In the USA, where there are rabies treatments and you have animals vaccinated for it, and you have a lot less contact with the wild animal reservoirs it is of course much less of a risk, but to judge biting as a crappy way to spread disease compared to sex seems silly – very few species fuck humans, but lots of them will bite us. ;)

    • invivoMark

      It’s hard to compare two species of virus in such a way, since the notion of a virus “species” turns out to be a very fuzzy concept. Counting just the two species as medically defined, rabies (genotype 1) is able to infect any mammal, while herpes simplex is specific to humans. However, the entire herpesvirus family includes viruses like chicken pox, Epstein-Barr virus (which infects 95% of all humans), and cytomegalovirus (which infects 60% of people over age 6), as well as tons of other viruses that infect other host species.

      In any case, a virus’s method of transmission is largely dependent on the tissue it infects. For instance, influenza infects airway epithelia, and so it is easily transmitted through the air. Rhinoviruses (common cold) are as well. Norovirus, which infects the lining of the GI tract, is transmitted easily through fluids and foods, and HPV, which infects the lining of the reproductive tract, is transmitted by sex.

      But a zombie virus would infect the brain. So does rabies, and I think that’s why rabies is a good model for the behavior of a potential Z virus. Rabies loves to infect neurons. There are nerves all over the body, and they will become exposed when you get a wound (say, from a bite). The virus then travels up the neurons, jumping across the synapses and traveling up the axons, until it reaches the brain.

      For a virus, that’s about the only way into the brain. Blood won’t take a virus there, because the blood-brain barrier will keep viruses out.

      Of course, herpes simplex virus also infects neurons. Herpes simplex is as different from rabies as Pat Robertson is from Richard Dawkins. Whereas rabies is a simple virus with an RNA genome of about 11,000 base pairs, enough to squeeze in only 5 genes, herpes simplex has a huge sprawling DNA genome of over 70 genes.

      They take somewhat different tactics to avoid immune detection. Rabies virus buds from infected neurons without killing them, making the virus difficult for the immune system to track, until it makes its way past the blood-brain barrier. Once there, the immune system can’t effectively kill virus-infected cells, and the virus is free to replicate. Herpes simplex, on the other hand, relies on the process of latency, where it periodically goes into hibernation inside the nucleus of neurons where it can’t be detected.

      One thing that both viruses have in common, beyond the fact that they both infect neurons, is that they both have the ability to travel up neural pathways. While rabies does this routinely upon infection, herpes simplex seems to do it rarely. However, when it happens, it can cause severe damage. It causes monocular blindness in about 40,000 cases per year, and in extremely rare cases, it can cause encephalitis. Since herpes simplex isn’t nearly as cautious as rabies is about keeping infected cells alive, encephalitis caused by herpes is rapidly fatal.

    • invivoMark

      So, the point I was getting at is:

      JT, I think you’re wrong. A hypothetical Z virus won’t spread by air. It could possibly spread by touching open wounds, but based on what we know about actual real-world viruses, its most likely method if transmission actually is biting.

      But I don’t think that the zombie disease is going to be caused by a virus. My post on your first entry details why.

  • randomfactor

    Is there a pantsless version? More fun that way.

    • Devi Taylor

      I know. That typo make me laugh.

      Note to author. I think you meant patented.

    • JTEberhard