Zombies are freaky. It doesn’t matter where they come from, decaying humans that mindlessly cannibalize flesh will always be just plain upsetting. And there’s seemingly no end to the sources of the living dead in media — we’ve had toxic waste, necromancers, evil skin-grafts (thanks Cronenberg), invisible zombie-creating portals, and even sound and radio waves.
I’m particularly partial to George Romero’s ominous explanation that “when there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” but it’s the science-based zombies that genuinely give me the creeps. There’s absolutely nothing scarier than a plausible monster using plausible means to kill people. And no video game series feeds on that fear better than Resident Evil.
A Virus Sandwich
For 23 years, Resident Evil has haunted audiences with the classic premise of a zombie outbreak that turns humans into undead creatures who feed on the flesh of other humans. Each in-game locale becomes a kind of prison where the player is forced into deadly situations with the only goals being survival and escape.
Throughout their trials, the player can find notes, files, recordings, and all sorts of other correspondence that explain the origins of the crisis: the Tyrant Virus, or t-Virus. This biological breakthrough came about when a pharmaceutical company tragically failed in its attempt to create a lethal bio-weapon, and instead turned its focus toward creating a superhuman capable of surviving otherwise lethal blows to the brain and other vital organs. For money, of course.
The virus inevitably gets released and the result is chaos, panic, and death. Zombies flood the streets, and if that’s not bad enough, outlandish creatures mutated by the virus and its subtypes have also sprung up to ruin the player’s day. Hope you’re good at rationing bullets.
What really makes this series click for fans is its combination of action, horror, and mystery, all wrapped up in a “what hath science wrought” narrative. You explore secluded mansion labyrinths, secret underground laboratories, and dozens of ridiculously intricate puzzles — all to discover the hidden history of this terrible viral outbreak. And after a few hours of zombie dodging and sifting through in-game virology notes about RNA and mutations, you might ask yourself: Could it really happen like this?
The Master of Debunking
To explore this specific nightmare, I spoke with Justin Waterfield, a leading Diagnostic Virology expert and Electron Microscopist for Duke University Health System. Not only is he a lifelong Resident Evil fan that gave up precious time playing the new Resident Evil 2: Remake to be interviewed, he’s also a brilliant scientist who manages and identifies dozens of pathological diseases and potential viral infections every week. He started our talk with the easy debunk you hopefully already knew: there are no viruses that animate or reanimate the dead. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
Because after thorough examination, Waterfield concluded that it’s entirely possible that something like the t-Virus could exist in the real world. Sort of. The good news is that it’s astronomically implausible.
“We’ve had only two or three instances in my lifetime that could be even remotely comparable to Resident Evil’s description of the t-Virus outbreak,” says Waterfield, “And they aren’t even close. That’s Ebola, SARS, and the various mutations of the influenza virus. And though we can’t always vaccinate for each type due to their continuous changes, we can contain them, so spreads are limited.”
In the games, the t-Virus is said to have been created when the Ebola virus was combined with what the game calls the Progenitor Virus, a single-stranded RNA non-carcinogenic mutagen retrovirus from a plant that enhances the human body with rapid mutations through gene editing. In layman’s terms, it’s a combination of a terribly deadly virus we’re familiar with in the real world and a virus that targets a specific part of a person’s genetic code to change them into something stronger while not causing cancer. Waterfield is quick to call out the enhancement as fiction, noting that “Viruses exist to weaken their hosts. A virus that doesn’t do that isn’t really a virus.”
But viruses can and actually do combine and mutate just like Resident Evil suggests. The process that results in the creation of the t-Virus is known in the real world as antigenic shift. Two viruses end up in the same cell, and when it replicates, the information mutates together to create a new subtype of those viruses. The best and most recent example of this, Waterfield says, is Bird Flu.
The influenza virus — a single-stranded RNA virus just like the Progenitor Virus, if you’re taking notes — is one of the most widespread and fastest mutating viruses on Earth. Some strains of the virus hit humans specifically, while others can attack animals like birds and pigs. When these different strains meet in a single host, they can undergo antigenic shift and become a new virus that targets a wider range of hosts. At that point, the immune system may not be able to recognize the virus, which means it can cause serious harm.
But Waterfield reassures me that this kind of event is uncommon: “With Avian Flu, if a human gets it, that’s very rare and a big deal, but it’s unlikely that it will cause a pandemic or will spread in the way that Resident Evil depicts the t-Virus. It’s so incredibly rare for this to happen at all, and the transmission rates would be too low.”
Basically, it takes a lot out of a virus to mutate enough to reach another species. Once there, it simply takes too long to mutate enough to be able to spread within that species effectively. This is why there are currently no viruses that affect humans, plants, fungi, and animals all at the same time. The Progenitor Virus couldn’t exist today as a plant virus that spreads to humans. So we can check that off of our list of plausible features of a real t-Virus, right? Well, not quite.
It turns out that viruses that create subtypes can affect all kinds of other species through mutations, but luckily they can’t transmit across species once they specialize in that specific type of host. As for the quick and monstrous mutations upon mutations from multiple exposures to the virus in the series, Waterfield can’t help but laugh. Even with RNA viruses being the fastest mutating viruses out there, they just aren’t nearly fast enough to cause this.
“The mutations are extreme, and while nature can be pretty metal, most of what we see in Resident Evil is cartoonish and stylized for maximum video game nonsense. Multiple infections or higher concentrations of a virus simply means that it kills the host or causes the symptoms of the infection faster.”
So much for that. But I have one more question: could the zombie apocalypse really be ushered in by corporations whose scientists are so preoccupied with whether they can that they don’t stop to think whether they should?
Waterfield is skeptical. “They would have to be a private company, as any public company or academic entity would be under constant supervision and regulations plus professional and journalistic scrutiny. That being said, money and political power can get away with a lot in our modern world. I think an Umbrella Corp. could exist, and get away with some minor bioengineering or ethically gray things, but anything that would be on the verge of bio-weapons or truly evil, I would imagine would not be able to stay hidden or secret for long.“
No Joke This Time, Just Get Vaccinated
Resident Evil may be an over-the-top action game, but the science it draws on is surprisingly legitimate. Though we likely won’t ever be fighting off real hordes of undead, the possibility of encountering or creating a super-virus is a very real one. We’re just lucky the odds are extremely in our favor, and that vaccines continue to stave off many of our microbial stalkers.
“The biggest takeaway you should get from Resident Evil,” Waterfield adds, “is that viruses can be extremely lethal and can spread very fast. I wish I didn’t have to say this in 2019, but I wish we taught more about immunology and the human immune system. In virology there’s no basis for refuting the power of vaccinations. The very idea of putting a dead or weakened virus into the host so that our body can learn how to defeat it is amazingly simple once you know how our immune system works. And that’s how we will survive.”