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In this answer it is pointed out that everyone appears to be infected with the virus. As we saw in the CDC center, death triggers the virus to reactivate portions of the brain.

Yet even a single bite from a Walker results in fever, eventual death (within days), and then reanimation.

If the Walkers are infected with the same virus that is already latent in the survivors, why do bites seems 100% fatal?

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Additionally, why wouldn't being drenched in and possibly ingesting/inhaling a walker's blood or getting in your eyes result in the same effect? – Force Flow Oct 19 '12 at 20:58
A fever starts when the body is trying to heal itself/ fight an infection or unknown bacteria/virus of some sort.. When the body is focusing on getting rid of this, it goes into a hard working process. After a while you'll get a fever - as a symptom that the body is battling against the unwanted "guest". – user10548 Oct 30 '12 at 7:40
Don't feel like writing a full answer, but I believe you also have to remember that they already have a weakened immune system so when they get bit it will introduce new bacteria and will cause an infection. So I believe they die from an infection and as a result, turn into a walker. – EricSSH Aug 3 '14 at 0:07
Placebo effect. If you think being bitten by a zombie turns you into a zombie, it will. ;) – Theik Apr 7 at 9:56

8 Answers 8

up vote 42 down vote accepted

There's several possible reasons.

Firstly, human mouths are dirty. A bite from a normal human is likely to become infected in many cases even today, when we have over-the-counter disinfectants, bandages, etc on hand in almost all locations. Left untreated, this alone could be fatal. This is unlikely today, in modern society, but not nearly as unlikely if society has broken down and medical treatment is unavailable. This is discussed to some degree in The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, which is based (as is TWD) on Romero-style zombies.

Next there's the reanimation. The virus is dormant, as you say, until death. If the zombie has any form of saliva (which they seem to) or moisture in their mouth (without which verbalizing would be nearly impossible) their bites will almost certainly introduce the live, active virus into the bitten person's bloodstream.

There's a HUGE difference between a dormant virus and an active one.

The active virus seems to cause fever, death, and reanimation. The dormant virus activates upon death, causing reanimation. It's also possible that the dormant virus activates upon contact with an active sample of the virus, which would help account for the rapid onset of symptoms.

In either case, amputation could potentially save the life of someone bitten upon a limb - if the active virus doesn't have time to make it to the heart, it can't propagate (either normally or by activating the dormant virus) throughout the rest of the body.

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+1 to this very well-thought out answer. I've popped positive as a PPD converter, which means that I carry a dormant variety of the bronchitis virus. Which is obviously not the same as the active variety, lest I be quite dead. – Terrance Shaw Oct 19 '12 at 18:42
@Jeff: Your theory about amputation was proven right when they amputated Hershel's leg in the show. Nice answer! – JNat Nov 16 '12 at 13:04
@JNat: I'm glad the show did that. That said, I cheated: I've been reading the comments for years, and it works in there. Couldn't be 100% sure the show would follow that, though. – Jeff Nov 17 '12 at 14:44
I'm pretty sure it's not the saliva. Otherwise very rotten corpses, with no working saliva glands, would be harmless. I'm thinking it cannot be blood either, because at one point Michonne is soaked in walker blood, but also has a badly patched stomach/side wound of her own, and she isn't worried about getting infected (and she doesn't). – Andres F. Feb 25 '14 at 17:18
@AndresF. They may not have saliva, but without some form of moisture in their mouth and throat, the zombies couldn't groan or moan. It's possible that heavily decomposed walkers will have the liquified residue of decomposition within their mouths. – Jeff Feb 25 '14 at 18:53

I am afraid that attempting to explain this using real world science will always fail. The idea that zombies can be caused by viruses is completely absurd despite its popularity. A virus needs living cells in order to be able to reproduce. Therefore, if the host cells have stopped reproducing (as is the case upon death), the virus will be completely incapable of doing anything at all. I might be willing to suspend my disbelief to accept, for example, bacteria or any other pathogen doing this but a virus is just silly. Pop-science just happens to find viruses cooler is all.

A dormant virus is simply one that is not currently hijacking the host's cellular machinery to make more copies of itself. OK, that explains the survivors. However, having the virus activated by death is, while theoretically possible (see, I can too suspend my disbelief!), very futile. The virus will wake up, try to replicate itself and fail because the cells are dead.

Since we know that zombies do not heal, we also know that their cells are dead despite their tissue being animate which means that a virus would simply not function. Therefore, all bets are off when it comes to explaining this using actual science. We have to posit that viruses are a completely different thing in-universe to what they are outside it and all "scientific" discussion is moot.

Full disclosure: I'm a biologist so I tend to take umbrage at such blatant disregard for fundamental scientific facts :)

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I don't agree with Jeff. There is a difference between a virus in a latent cycle and an active one, but not to the extent or manner Jeff describes; at least in not in regard to immunity.

I'm of the opinion that the Survivors aren't immune to the virus, meaning they are not immune in the sense that the virus still replicates inside them to some extent.

From the show we know that virus causes a deadly fever following which the corpse is re-animated. Death of the host seems to be necessary for the virus to create a 'walker'. It seems more like the survivors are "immune tolerant" of the infection. Meaning, they are infected and the virus replicates inside them at some level, however their immune systems tolerate this infection as opposed to inducing the deadly fever in an attempt to squash replication.

In this way, they could seem immune when really they are just not suffering from the deadly fever which is the necessary precursor to becoming a walker.

It is fairly common for the viral infection itself to not be the cause of disease. In the real world, Ebola, Dengue, and West Nile all cause disease indirectly by stimulating an over-reaction of the immune system. Indeed, many potential treatments for these diseases include immune suppressants to lessen the severity of the patients reaction in addition to direct antivirals.

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Very interesting. However, how does a bite trigger the fever and subsequent death in those who are immune tolerant? – Beofett Oct 19 '12 at 16:24
"not be the cause of disease" Do you mean "death" not "disease"? – Patrick M Nov 19 '14 at 10:32

A reason could be like a Komodo dragon, which has bacteria in its teeth. If someone bit you with rotting flesh in there teeth you would probably get extremely sick and you might die as well.

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Has anyone considered:

It's two viruses in a symbiotic relationship?

Virus A: Something like an anaerobic rabies that "activates" on death as the oxygen content of the body lowers due to decomposition.

Virus/Bacteria B: And then another flu-like virus/bacteria that can be passed on by saliva to blood (IE you can drink your own saliva and be fine because the virus is too large to be absorbed into your blood stream via your intestines but not too large to be "injected" when you break someone's kin with a bite).

This one kills with a bite, and then the rabies takes over upon death causing you to become someone who bites a lot. Perhaps this is a decomposer bacteria rather than a virus and causes your body to become an anaerobic environment more quickly, further assisting the rabies.

This would also make a hell of a lot of sense from the "genetically engineered virus" point of view that's usually the cause of zombie outbreaks. It might be that only one of the two viruses was intentionally created without people knowing the other existed and thus not knowing they would work together so well, which explains how they could be so stupid as to let this out into the world.

IE: Everyone has Virus A Somehow Bacteria B gets let out into the world (or the natural bacteria of human mouths mutates).

A few people get bitten, they die of Bacteria B, which decomposes their corpse more aggressively,m making their internal systems an anaerobic environment, activating Virus A, they become the undead and bite others.

Or maybe Bacteria B has been knocking about fairly harmlessly somewhere in Europe and all of America is infected with Virus A. The moment someone from Europe visits the USA and bites someone, they become infected with Bacteria B, they die, they decompose internally a bit more quickly than expected, anaerobic environment is established, rabies activates and they are now a zombie that carries both diseases, few people get bitten by "mad man who was declared dead". some of them travel around etc and it goes world wide.

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It's been answered in Letter Hacks (Issue #41)

"The rule is WHATEVER it is that causes the zombies, is something everyone already has. If you stub your toe, get an infection and die, you turn into a zombie, UNLESS your brain is damaged. If someone shoots you in the head and you die, you're dead. A zombie bite kills you because of infection, or blood loss, not because of the zombie "virus."" —Robert Kirkman

Whatever the science of the virus triggering on death, death by zombie bite is from infection (think of all the bactiria on a corpse and in its mouth; even the healthy human mouth is teeming with it; add the zombie's non-fussy diet and it's bad news). Getting their blood in your mouth or eyes could certainly be hazardous but it depends on a lot of factors; how much, if you have gingivitis or open sores in the mouth or nose, and then what state the blood was in, and your own imune system.

The fever preceding death may be from the virus already in their system gearing up, then simulating death (highly probable; 'hitting restart' to effect the change), or from the infection their imune system trying to fight (seems less likely to me); no one knows, but the bite is not passing on the 'zombie virus', as they already have it.

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I've wondered this myself many times and I've only come up with one viable solution. My theory is that the current survivors when exposed to the initial wave of infection were able to create antibodies quick enough to prevent turning into a walker. The fact that everyone alive today remains infected demonstrates that even those whose immune systems were able to handle the disease/virus/parasite (I don't believe we know for certain yet what this is) are only able to keep the infection dormant, not drive it out completely.

Without any resistance from the bodies natural defenses, I.E. death, the infection immediately begins to spread virulently, multiplying exponentially throughout all the bodies core systems. This means a direct bite from a dead or non-immune person would be extremely concentrated, overwhelming the bodies defenses. The lymphs would swell to enormous size, a very high fever would develop, and the victims blood which quickly become toxic, and the organs would begin to shut down. A painful death for certain.

As for accidental ingestion through the mouth - Presumably despite not being shown on the series or in the comics, most people are maintaining basic dental hygiene. (Much of the day to day detail is not shown and is only implied, and in a world without doctors and dentists, health maintenance is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT) If that is the case, and you don't have dirty gums or lesions in your mouth, its actually pretty safe. It is quite likely the mystery pathogen would be destroyed through the natural initial processes of digestion (naturally occurring disinfectant properties of saliva and the much stronger acidity of the stomach) This might also hold true of the nose and ears. (Your body does a pretty good job of filtering out particulate matter from the air and shunting it down the throat.

This pretty much just leaves the eyes and any open wounds. Keep in mind, that since by and large zombies are EXTREMELY dehydrated, their blood will be very thick and congealed, almost like a thick tomato paste. With a blunt force impact, any blood spray will be directed away from the attacker. Same with a slicing type attack like a sword or machete. The only real danger would come from drawing back a puncture weapon, think knife in the eye, and even then, it'd just be a little short range squirt, and I think people would instinctively shut their eyes while they did it. As for an open wound... well if you get contact with zombie blood on your open wound, I think you're pretty screwed. At that point I think you're praying that your bandage has held a seal...

Sorry for the looong post, but thats the only theory I have that I haven't been able to poke holes in.

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I like how you think, but at this stage we've seen characters almost bathed in walker blood who don't turn. Michonne at one point has a badly patched stomach wound while being covered in walker blood, and she doesn't turn. Compare this with real-life HIV transmission, with health care workers warned to use gloves and not to let skin scratches get in contact with infected blood. – Andres F. Apr 3 '14 at 23:52
True. Another option could be that the unique body chemistry of the survivors causes the zombie infection to act very similarly to HIV, dramatically lowering the immune system but stopping short of killing them directly, making a zombie bite just an incidental exposure to whatever terrible diseases are thriving in that filthy, moist environment. That could also explain the mortality rate of that plague that spread so quickly among everyone at the prison. Maybe it wasn't a crazy super flu, maybe it was just a cold... – SA295 Apr 4 '14 at 21:03

Here is the virus' life-cycle, as I see it:

Day zero hits, which is the day when some strain of virus mutates into Virus Z. So at this point, our victim, John, doesn't have the virus. Some time after day zero, John catches what he thinks is a common bug. The symptoms John feels are his immune system responding to the infection of Z. Since Z is incapable of compromising a healthy immune system, Z goes into dormancy as a defense mechanism. While dormant, Z does not replicate, and hides within the host's own cells until reactivated by some specific stimuli (this is known as viral latency.)

So John, who is still healthy, now has a number of dormant Z viruses floating through his bloodstream. One way to reactivate Z is by way of death. Another way to reactivate the virus is via a large immune response to the presence of a strong new infection of active Z. This isn't too much different than how some viruses, like herpes, work; which is thought to reactivate only to very specific immune system responses.

Now, let's say John gets a Walker's blood in his mouth. The number of activate Z viruses in the blood splatter would be relatively small, and aren't nearly enough to compromise John's immune system or create the specific immune response needed to reactivate the dormant Z in his blood. So John is still alive and well.

Finally, poor John gets bit on the arm. He receives a large surge of new Z into his blood stream where the wound occurred. At this point, John has two options:

  1. Accept his fate and allow the flood of active Z to create the exact immune response that the dormant Z has been waiting for to reactivate. Or...
  2. Sever the arm before his immune system can respond to the new, Z infection.

John goes with option #1. We don't know just how much dormant Z John has accumulated since day zero, but we know it must have an incredibly strong presence based on how fast it kills. Ebola can take around 1-2 weeks. Whereas Z can kill in hours. John's immune system is quickly overwhelmed, and he succumbs to the virus.

RIP in peace, John.

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How does this explain Michonne being bathed in zombie blood while also having a badly patched stomach wound? This happens in one of the Prison episodes. This would allow a large amount of "active Z viruses" (to use your teminology) to enter Michonne's bloodstream via her exposed stomach wound. However, Michonne doesn't turn and she obviously doesn't amputate her stomach ;) Therefore, I think she serves as a refutation of your theory. – Andres F. Sep 21 at 16:38

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