It’s that time of year again when the world starts to fear another pandemic that will sweep over the land, infecting everyone in sight and leaving thousands if not millions dying in its wake.

I’m not talking about flu, however, I’m talking about zombies!

As always around Halloween, spooky science emerges as the world aims to explain the nature and actions of some of our most revered – and feared – fictional characters.  The premise is quite sound and some of the theories have been even more interesting.

Take vampires for example.

We all know of their bloodsucking habit and the curse of immortality and how a simple bite can change one’s life forever.  From a scientific standpoint, this is no different than a retrovirus, such as HIV.  Once the virus gets into the blood, it can change the way the body functions.  Granted, there has yet to be a virus that gives an entire body immortality but even then, the chance is possible.  After all, many cancerous cells are immortal and in up to 40% of cases, the causative agent is a virus.

The premise is so real that there is a series of books and soon a television series
devoted to the vampire virus.  It’s called:  The Strain.

Zombies in Ottawa!

Now, Chris Lackner takes us on a journey of epidemic proportions as he takes a look at how a zombie outbreak would happen in Ottawa.

Chris called me a few weeks back and asked me to provide comments on a potential zombie outbreak, how it would spread across the city and what areas would be affected the most.  For those of you who live in Ottawa, I’m sure you will get a kick out of the discussion.  For those of you who don’t, just type a few of the names into Google Maps and start taking a look around.

You can read the story here:

Obviously the story was all in good fun but I have to admit that our discussions went quite heavily into the realm of microbiology, immunology and epidemiology.  I’d like to share that process with you.

  • We went back and reviewed what happened during SARS, as well as the swine flu pandemic, and the most recent Ebola outbreaks in Africa.  The SARS model seemed to fit the best and so we chose to work with that in mind.
  • We then discussed the kind of pathogen the zombie contagion would be.  A virus would be the most likely option so we ran with that. But what kind of virus?  Would it be a virus that acted immediately as in 28 Days Later or one that took its time before it took hold of the body like the one in George Romero’s Zombie movies?  If there was little no no lag time, then there wouldn’t be much of an outbreak.  But if there was between 24 and 48 hours, Ottawa was essentially doomed.  We chose that route.
  • From there, we discussed all the different areas that would be ravaged as well as taking into account human tendencies including the fight or flight response.  Based on past research on disaster management, panic studies and the emotional effects of normal life, there was little doubt that the suburbs would be the worst off while high-income urban environments would be all bu decimated.  As for the inner city, there would be war, pure and simple.  The people with the greatest chance of survival are those living in rural areas.  That’s why I said people living in North Gower (about 30 min from the city) would have a better chance at missing the infection than those living in the Glebe (a higher income neighbourhood).  For the record, I live closer to the Glebe so I wasn’t playing favorites.

The discussion went on for about an hour and we had a blast with lots of laughs and a few very poignant parallels between the fictions epidemic and real ones.  While I understand this will most likely not end up being headline news, I hope that people take away from the article more than just the zombie punchline and realize that whatever happens in the fictional world, has and will surely occur in the real one.

If you wanted to learn more about the science behind zombies, I would recommend you pick up the book entitled appropriately…

That’s with three A’s, three I’s, three N’s and three S’s.  It’s a great book that looks at a zombie outbreak from a number of different perspectives including human rights, legal affairs and even landscape architecture.  It’s written by my colleague Robert Smith? and as you might figure, he’s featured quite nicely in this article as well.

You can get the book at the University of Ottawa Press:

Enjoy the article and as always, I’m always interested in your amazing comments and questions!


I wanted to thank the tens of thousands of people who took part in the Germ Wars series. All the videos that aired, supplemental videos, the quiz and the webchat (thanks, DG) are all up on now so I encourage you to take a look!  You can see it all here: