An infectious disease that could possibility wipe out humanity?

Jun 21, 2012
I am writing a science fiction story about an infectious disease that wipes out humanity. I was wondering if this would be possible?
Easily, and a current fear - been done in fiction a few times before so it might be an idea to figure out what you're trying to say and achieve that's unique.
If the disease kept mutating, outpacing human population's capacity to develop antibodies, it would present a real risk.

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, deals with a world where Europe was wiped out by the Black Death, instead of it only killing one third to one half of the population.

A more recent example would be the 1918-1920 flu pandemic (Spanish Flu). It infected 500 million people across the globe and killed up to 100 million, at a time when the population was only two billion. Five percent of the population in two years. If the mortality rate had been any higher, it might have snowballed. Alternatively, if the mortality rate had been very high, it might not have spread as far, as the infected people might not have survived to travel.

In the modern world, the problem could be when vital services begin to fail, and people begin to die not just from the primary disease, but from things such as rubbish not being collected and city electricity supplies being interrupted.
Easily, and a current fear - been done in fiction a few times before so it might be an idea to figure out what you're trying to say and achieve that's unique.

Brian's right, coming up with something unique is the key. In Wyndham's 'Triffids' he could easily have used an infection to make people blind but he chose something different.

Of course, the disease doesn't have to kill people outright but just have some kind of effect that would make it difficult for people to survive. Maybe something affecting the limbs - how would we get on if we couldn't walk or use our arms?
Alternatively, if the mortality rate had been very high, it might not have spread as far, as the infected people might not have survived to travel.
True, but that has to be set against all the effort humanity puts into making sure the whole world is interconnected, so that most of the population is less than a day's travel from any source of infection.
We (as a species) have been hit in the past with mass epidemics (Black Plague comes to mind, for instance), and we're still here. Genetically speaking, there'll always be individuals with natural protection against a given disease. So, our population could drop *a lot*, but as those individuals repopulate and spread their immunity through their descendants.

There was an episode of Sliders that touched on this topic (where a disease killed most males, and the surviving are used as breeders).

So, an infectious disease that could possibly wipe out humanity would be plausible Abernovo. But keep this in mind: there are diseases that evolve a lot (like flu) yet never outpace us.
The Babylon 5 Episode, "Confessions and Lamentations" deals with this very thing. The disease threatens to wipe out an entire species (the Markab). The doctor on the ship wants to find a cure, but the disease is so taboo and shunned that admitting you have it is a dishonor worse than death.

Definitely worth watching the episode if you have not already and the main story is a stand-alone story, so watching prior material is not necessary. It might be on Hulu or such for free? Or, like $1.99 an episode on a pay site like Amazon, Vudu.
Probably not, but it could send us back to the stone age, or equivalent.
there are cryo freezers at the centers of disease controll that are filled with all the plagues of mankind.
the antibiotics cannot keep up with the new mutations. MSRI's are the new bogey man of the medical profession.
more and more people are coming down with diseases thought to have been stricken from the face of the planet. ( ie. TB, polio, bubonic plague, typhoid, even malaria ...etc.)
there are reasons that you are required to be immunized before entering tropical countries, and third world areas.
one of the biggest fears of the health care system today is the rapidity of a disease vector due to aircraft travel.
SARS was no joke up here. the chinese lady was quarantined and was supposed to be staying and not traveling .. but she did. and she infected a city wide population. including a very busy hospital.
There are still public breathing masks and non touch systems for entrance and exit and hand washing all over Toronto.
Try being pulled out of a supervised university final exam and taken to be fitted with a breathing mask and decontam gear for a fast reality check.
Are we talking a naturally occurring Pandemic or an artificial one?

Personally, I would engineer a prion disease protein such as Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, into the Soya crop seeds of major world suppliers. Because the disease takes about 6-months to become apparent, most people would be infected before the source was discovered.
Its unlikely a disease would kill all humanity, devastate the population.. yes.. but animals are evolved to be different and to actively fight these sorts of things through their physiology. For an additional example to those given above, some people are even immune to HIV.

Things like MRSA are extremely worrrying, but would never bring about the downfall of humanity - only setting us back to pre-antibiotics times (and probably not even that as its not as though EVERY bacteria will be 'super'). This also assumes we cant improve antibacterial technology, which is also unlikely.

Super viruses make for interesting stories and a very real threat of devastation, but not annihilation :)
If the disease kept mutating, outpacing human population's capacity to develop antibodies, it would present a real risk.

Agreed. And, I also agree with Brian, make it unique. There's plenty to use as a foundation, like GMO. If scientists can genetically mutate our food sources, then there's every possibility of infecting those who consume food. Seeing that includes the whole of the worlds population, find a unique way to introduce your invention as part of the suspense and mystery.

Hehe, maybe only the absolute starving are able to escape the event and the meek inherit the Earth?
There's actually quite a few you could go with. I would choose one, or several, and make them mutate, myself.

There's several Influenza viruses you could go with, mutate the Ebola virus, mutations of Smallpox or Bubonic, Scarlet Fever, take your pick.

Or come up with something on your own. During one of my own projects, which ultimately and sadly I had abandoned, I came up with a genetically engineered virus that attacked the hypothalamus, which lowered the body's temperature to the point of hypothermia. Some creatures survived to become crazed monsters.
It is unlikely that such a disease would evolve naturally; too much genetic diversity in the species; for any massively fatal disease there will be a naturally immune population, and it will die out due to lack of hosts too rapidly to infect sufficiently widespread anyway.

This doesn't hold for tailored diseases, and one of today's nightmares is that you don't need a Manhattan project and billions of dollars to develop a new lifeform; it could be done in the laboratory of a hospital somewhere, or a fairly advanced school. Certainly, to know exactly what a particular virus will do, enormous amounts of computer power, but if all you're trying for is kill as many as possible then a simple gene splicing set up, a test population and a reasonable amount of luck could be enough.

The disease should have a long, infectious but symptom-free incubation period before a short lethal period. This bypasses quarantines, and doesn't give laboratories enough time alone with the organism to find its Achilles heel before the patient dies (or the lab techs).

The infection vector needs to be simple - no secondary 'the bite of a Tasmanian hobbit shrew' which has become the favoured pet of the rich – respiratory or skin contact have the best wide distribution record, and who are we to argue with success?

Remember, a naturally occurring disease that invariably kills its hosts is a failure. After all, its primary imperative is the same as yours or mine; feed, reproduce and try and make sure your offspring have as much chance of survival as possible (under which analysis I'm as much a dead end as bubonic plague; but I like to think slightly better liked). A really successful disease hardly kills anybody, and is only a short step away from symbiotic. Most of the really lethal infections have crossed over from other species, where they had a much lower death rate.

A synthetic organism has no such limitations. I'd suggest reading "Infectress" (by Cool) or Herbert's "White plague". It is born to kill, and targeted; programmed homicidal.
Also, bear in mind how technical you want to get. If you're telling the story from the POV of an uninformed witness, you will still need to pass on enough information to make it believable: most outbreaks will be in the media and various emergency responses will at first be implemented. If you're telling it after the fact, and there are no or hardly any survivors and time has passed, the disease itself may have become a thing of legend and nightmare. If you plan something new, and really fast, you could read up loads: the web is full of possible next plagues!
I don't have the technical mind to come up with stuff - but viruses are mutating all the time and the bods that study them aren't always clear on where the mutation is going to lead - the following article include quotes from a friends husband and is just an indication of what naturally occuring mutations can do - artificially tweaked mutations would/could be very different . . .

BBC News - Coronavirus: New virus 'not yet global threat'