The Covid-19 pandemic has left the world in an incredibly fragile state, leaving us all understandably weary as many theorize about what future health crisis might strike us next. With the recent premiere of HBO Max’s latest hit series “The Last of Us”, a lot of that theorizing was seemingly done for us in a matter of minutes.
As commonly seen in the post-apocalyptic genre, The Last of Us incorporated real-world phenomenons to curate a perfectly horrifying origin story for this show’s virus that spooked both long-time fans of the franchise and new viewers alike. Nothing evokes a sense of imminent dread more than the mention of a current global crisis in conjunction with a real zombie-like occurrence, which in this case would be climate change and fungal infection.
After nearly 10 years since The Last of Us (2013) video game debuted, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, co-creators of the game, returned to breathe new life into the television adaptation, further building off of the base source material that initially made the franchise such an award-winning hit. In order to make the console-to-screen transition a smooth one, many new scenes and plot points were added with the first notable change being the opening to the series. This show lets you know that it won’t be like any other zombie apocalypse-type spectacle you have seen before.
The pilot opens with a flashback to a 1960s talk show, 35 years before the outbreak, in which two epidemiologists discuss what globally-debilitating health crisis might destroy our world in the future. One scientist brings up the most predictable answer being an airborne virus similar to influenza, however, the prediction brought up next is something entirely new.
The other epidemiologist combats this claim and argues that the general familiarity of viral pandemics and their transmission are things that mankind has been battling for an unimaginable amount of time. He even points out that “In the end, we always win.” When he instead brings up his concern about fungus, the crowd and all individuals in the room scoff at such a seemingly bizarre idea. The conversation now centers around the question of what’s more dangerous: a disease motivated to sicken/debilitate its host or one that seeks to control it entirely.
To both the fictional audience and The Last of Us viewers’ surprise, fungus such as this already exists and some are already commonly used. The two examples brought up in the scene are LSD and Psilocybin, two hallucinogenic drugs derived from their respective fungus and are infamous for their mind-altering symptoms. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, disruptions in mood, hunger, intestinal muscle control, and sensory perception are a few of the many effects that result from interference with the brain chemical serotonin, due to this classification of drugs. To many, some of these symptoms already seem to hint toward the story’s fungus of choice.
The epidemiologist goes on to describe a type of fungus that currently infects ants by traveling through its circulatory system to the ant’s brain, then flooding it with hallucinogens to bend the ant’s mind to its will. Sound familiar? Well in this scenario of “a puppeteer with a marionette”, the fungus does more than just alter the ant’s neurological function and in addition to this, it proceeds to devour its host from within in order to thrive. This description alone can create a freakish picture in the audience’s mind reminiscent of a monster or zombie, but still, many of you may ask: what does this have to do with us? This is when mentions of climate change and the altering of our environment come into relevance.
To conclude the scene, it's noted that at the time of the scene’s setting, fungal infection in humans is not possible if “its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees.” However, the gradual warming of our earth’s climate over time could make this type of evolution a reality. This revelation seems to have the audience on the edge of their seats. As the scientist then goes on to list a number of fungi capable of this type of behavior he suddenly mentions Cordyceps, a name that franchise fans recognized right away as being to blame for the apocalyptic epidemic. We then exit the flashback and meet our main characters 35 years into the future, enough time for the conditions described to have taken effect. The writers successfully spooked the viewers by educating us on the cause of the outbreak before the characters were even aware of it themselves. To top it all off, we are told that while viruses present an opportunity for a vaccine, in this scenario, we would not have that luxury and ultimately “we lose.”
Following this impactful opening sequence, this sense of foreboding dread influenced media outlets everywhere to entertain the question of whether or not this could actually happen to us. While compelling titles and headlines that tease the “zombie virus” to be a future threat are everywhere, experts ranging from epidemiologists to mycologists, those who study fungal biology, are just as apparent making their research known and easing the minds of all of us at home.
In terms of evolution, the reality is that the leap from ants to humans is far from an imminent possibility. As the Yale School of Medicine points out, “There are millions of fungal and mold species out in nature that don’t cause any sort of infection in humans… A Cordyceps that infects one species of ant cannot even infect other species of ants.” To add on, “Fungal infections come from the environment—through inhaling spores or an exposed wound. And once you’re infected, the risk of spreading it to another person is exceedingly low.” Considering the exceptional amount of time it’d take to surpass the entire insect classification, as it's been evolving for millions of years just to infect one specific species, it would take even longer to overcome the very distinct human immune system.
While the “The Last of Us” series teases the realistic risk of new health threats arising from climate change, fans can rest easy in knowing that one of them won’t introduce a new wave of literal monstrous capabilities.