Could Scientists Detect a 'Zombie' Virus Before an Outbreak Occurred?

zombies from Fear the Walking Dead.
Do you fear the walking dead? (Image credit: AMC)

There's no way around it: Viruses are scary. They're invisible to the naked eye, they can be difficult to get rid of and many are capable of spreading quickly. That's why it's important to detect a disease-causing virus before it has the chance to infect so many people that it's impossible to contain.

Failure to detect and contain a deadly virus early enough to prevent an outbreak is a key component of the story in AMC's sci-fi series "Fear the Walking Dead" (which airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT, starting Aug. 12). The show, now in its fourth season, follows characters as they try to survive in a world that's been overcome by a deadly zombie virus.

Fortunately, in the real world, scientists have developed multiple techniques for detecting viruses quickly — and, hopefully, before an outbreak were to occur. [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]

One of the most sensitive ways to detect viruses is by identifying their nucleic acids — either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA), said Dr. Eliah Aronoff-Spencer, an infectious-disease specialist and global technology researcher at the University of California, San Diego. Nucleic acids are the molecular materials that tell a virus how to build itself. (They essentially serve the same purpose in both humans and other creatures.) 

There are hundreds of known viruses that scientists can quickly identify by recognizing their unique sequence of nucleic acids, but some are easier to find than others. Most viruses like to grow in the blood, but they aren't always easy to find, Aronoff-Spencer explained. "Some viruses like to stay latent for a long time, and you might not see them" — one such virus is hepatitis B, he said. Other times, there's not a high enough concentration of the virus in the blood, which can make it difficult to identify the virus.

Nonetheless, Aronoff-Spencer said scientists have developed technology to detect viruses accurately and rapidly. "It's technically possible today to have [blood test] results in less than 30 minutes," he said. The reason a quick turnaround time doesn't usually happen when people get blood tests now is because of logistics and cost, but the technology is there, Aronoff-Spencer explained. "We just haven't had the right circumstances to make this widespread and commercial," he said.

Detecting a known virus rapidly is helpful, but detecting a previously unknown virus would be crucial to stopping a hypothetical zombie epidemic. In that situation, it might take days to figure out what the new virus was and where it came from, and by that time, it could be too late to prevent an outbreak.

But Aronoff-Spencer and his colleagues are working to develop diagnostic chips called biocameras, which have numerous pixels on them, each dedicated to rapidly detecting a wide variety of potential known and unknown viruses. With the chips, "we can test for all known viruses at a specific level, and then we can go upstream in the evolution and start to test for things that are common to groups of viruses but not specific to any one of them," Aronoff-Spencer said. This broad testing panel would allow scientists to identify a new virus and even learn where it came from. And fast.

Even with the current diagnostic technology, Aronoff-Spencer said he's confident scientists could detect a theoretical zombie virus before an outbreak occurred — that is, "assuming your zombie outbreak didn't come from a virus that doesn't use DNA or RNA," he said. Viruses have pretty solid genetic rules in order to function, which means there's a limited number of ways viruses can evolve. "The laws of genetics are on our side," Aronoff-Spencer said. "We're getting pretty good at finding these things."

Just for fun, Aronoff-Spencer speculated that the most likely way a zombie virus would ever show up would be if someone were to uncover an ancient religious burial ground and mess with some mummies they shouldn't have been messing with — in other words, "humans going to a place they shouldn't be, or normally aren't, and then the [virus] escapes," he said. "That's usually what happens when viruses pop up."

Original article on Live Science.

Kimberly Hickok
Live Science Contributor

Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, a master's degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former reference editor for Live Science and Her work has appeared in Inside Science, News from Science, the San Jose Mercury and others. Her favorite stories include those about animals and obscurities. A Texas native, Kim now lives in a California redwood forest.