After the 2011 film Contagion sparked eerie comparisons to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems the HBO adaptation of the smash hit PlayStation game series The Last of Us is the next piece of media to have us worrying about the real-life threat of viruses, fungi and bacteria.
Released in 2013, the zombie apocalypse video game sees players move around as smuggler Joel, who’s tasked with safely escorting a young girl named Ellie across what’s left of America to a rebel group known as The Fireflies. Of course, there’s also the added threat of zombies, infected with a mutated form of the Cordyceps fungus.
But hey, at least that fungus is entirely fictitious and doesn’t exist in reality, right? Right?
Unfortunately not. The orphiocordyceps unilateralis is a real pathogenic fungus known as the zombie ant fungus, as it infects the insects and hijacks their brain, forcing them to seek out a warmer climate before making the ant bite into a leaf vein and slowly die.
Eventually, it will then burst out a stem from the ant’s head, where it is able to release new spores and infect even more ants and so on, and so on…
The first episode of the HBO series, which aired on Sunday, opens with an epidemiologist on a TV show warning of the risk this fungi could transfer to humans.
“If the world were to get slightly warmer, then there is a reason to evolve. Candida, ergot, Cordyceps, aspergillosis – any one of them could be capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control of not millions of us, but billions.
“Billions of puppets with poison minds… and there are no treatments for this, no preventatives. They don’t exist; it’s not even possible to make them,” the scientist says.
And if that wasn’t disturbing enough, when asked by The Hollywood Reporter how much of that opening was based on real science, showrunner Craig Mazin replied “it’s real”.
“It’s real to the extent that everything he says fungus do, they do – and they currently do it and have been doing it forever. There are some remarkable documentaries that you can watch that are quite terrifying.
“Now his warning: what if they evolve and get into us? From a purely scientific point of view, would they do exactly to us what they do to ants? I don’t think so. I doubt it.
“On the other hand, he’s right: LSD and psilocybin do come from fungus. What I told John [Hannah, the actor] was, ‘what we’re doing in this scene is telling people this has always been here’,” he said.
Thanks for that, Craig.
And if that wasn’t enough, the popular What If? YouTube channel decided to ponder what it could look like if Cordyceps was able to move from insects into humans, suggesting it would “most likely be an airborne infection”.
“When you first become infected, you’ll begin to feel some symptoms you’ve probably felt before. A fever, abdominal pain, weakness, and vomiting are all possible consequences. You might also notice yourself getting depressed, as the Cordyceps could affect your dopamine levels.
“As time goes on, the fungus would start to take over your nervous system. Since you’re a lot bigger than something like an insect, it would take months for the Cordyceps to take over you fully,” a video on the channel claims.
Just like in ants, What If suggests it would eventually anchor you to an area to die before you become a “fruiting body” to spread spores.
“Luckily, we don’t need to worry about this sort of thing happening to us. Cordyceps can’t infect humans, as our bodies are better than insects at attacking pathogens,” they conclude.
Thank God for that.
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