Developing a Zombie Vaccine

It’s Zombie Day on ScienceBlogs! Scicurious at Neurotopia kicked things off, and Joseph of Ataraxia Theatre (whose other projects include the GearHead roleplaying game) provided the cool zombie illustrations. i-fb3bdaa429ddbbceb8e806c8e6b0d7b9-sbzombies_pump-handle.png

Thanks to the DC Department of Health’s excellent disease surveillance system, a recent outbreak of zombies in the nation’s capital was detected quickly enough to allow for capture and isolation of all cases, and no further transmission of the zombie virus has been observed. All state and local health and law enforcement departments have been alerted to the outbreak and instructed on how to detect and immobilize zombies. While we hope to contain future outbreaks, we must also acknowledge the possibility of a zombie epidemic emerging in the future and plan accordingly.

Because previous research (see Munz et al, 2009) demonstrates that our society cannot survive a zombie epidemic, we must focus on preventing an epidemic from occurring. In addition to exploring possible behavioral interventions and protective equipment to prevent infection, researchers are pursuing a zombie vaccine. In order to do so, they must first consider some hypotheses about the zombie virus.

Transmissibility – The current hypothesis is that the zombie virus is transmitted when a zombie bites a non-zombie, either living or recently deceased. It is assumed that all susceptible individuals bitten by zombies become infected, although this hypothesis has not been tested under laboratory conditions.

Pathogenicity – It is also currently assumed that an infected individual will become a zombie; the case definition of zombieism includes a shambling gait, necrosis on face or limbs, and an expressed desire to consume human flesh. However, it may be the case that individuals can become infected with the zombie virus without exhibiting symptoms. A new study to detect zombie virus antibodies in the blood of non-zombies is currently enrolling subjects.

Virulence – All zombies observed to date have exhibited severe cases of zombieism. However, researchers should not neglect the possibility that some zombies have eluded detection because they exhibit fewer symptoms, and may be spreading the virus by consuming human flesh.

For more on issues of transmissibility, pathogenicity, and virulence, see this Effect Measure post.

Challenges in vaccine testing – Researchers are currently attempting to create an animal model of zombieism, although the zombie virus has not been observed in other species. If a vaccine is developed, it will be difficult to test unless zombie outbreaks become common. And even if a vaccine is found to be effective, our current vaccine production system would not be able to quickly produce the large number of doses that would be necessary.

Substantial challenges confront zombie researchers, but no problem is insurmountable if we put our brains to it.


  1. #1 WhatPaleBlueDot
    July 1, 2010

    esearchers are currently attempting to create an animal model of zombieism, although the zombie virus has not been observed in other species.

    Not true! Resident Evil had plenty of zombie animals.

  2. #2 Liz Borkowski
    July 1, 2010

    That’s an exciting development, and will be the subject of a late-breaker session at the upcoming annual meeting of the Zombie Organization of Medicine & Biology!

  3. #3 Zuskbie
    July 1, 2010

    Put our brains to it? Noooooooooo!

    Oh wait. We can eat gelaaaaaaaato instead!

    Great post!

  4. #4 feralboy12
    July 1, 2010

    Actually, the first item of business will be to determine which strain of zombism we are dealing with–the brain eating variety or the flesh eating type? I would point out that the brain-eating strain has been observed in animals including cut-in-half dogs.
    Also, we will need to take action to prevent Jenny McCarthy from spreading misinformation about the vaccine.

  5. #5 Liz Borkowski
    July 1, 2010

    The strain is definitely important … and I hope the two strains aren’t circulating in the same population and swapping genetic material.

  6. #6 David N. Brown
    July 1, 2010

    An utterly shameless plug for my “book store”:
    Featuring Walking Dead, Walking Dead 2 and Zombie Vegas!

  7. #7 Celeste Monforton
    July 3, 2010

    Are those green zombies holding brains?

  8. #8 Liz Borkowski
    July 3, 2010

    That’s what it looks like to me!

  9. #9 kim
    July 5, 2010

    Some have posited that the zombie plague is not a virus, but a new prion manifestation of malformed proteins in which the protein deformation is somehow accomplished at a vastly accelerated rate, vCJD gone mad. A new form that has also evolved to be transmittable from human to human that can spread through basic neurological pathways that don’t have to directly involve brain and spinal cord tissue.

    Is our prion science too much in the infancy stage to find a cure before it’s too late?

  10. #10 Zombies!
    July 9, 2010

    So will any of you be attending the talk at this year’s upcoming APHA “Mathematical modeling of outbreaks explained: Real-Life lessons from the living dead” ?


  11. #11 Liz Borkowski
    July 9, 2010

    That looks so cool! I won’t be in Denver, but I will recommend it to those who will be — session description is here.