Virus fights virus for control of Brad Pitt's brain, but is this science?

By Dan Stanton

- Last updated on GMT

Who would have guessed there was a vaccination against zombies? Brad Pitt for one
Who would have guessed there was a vaccination against zombies? Brad Pitt for one

Related tags Virus Immune system

Brad Pitt made himself sick to avoid a zombie virus in World War Z but, despite some real world precedents, he was lucky his gamble paid off according to virus experts we asked.

In last year’s zombie-adventure film World War Z family-man Brad Pitt goes on a ludicrous globetrotting escapade to see how the world is dealing with a virus that turns humans into zombies attracted by sound and the promise of a healthy new victim to chew on.

The zombies are caused by a virus causing the host to infect others through bite, but - and here’s the pseudo-science part - zombies cannot attack humans infected with other diseases, a realisation only Pitt twigs as he injects himself with a random less-lethal virus ruining the dinner plans of a virally-infected wandering soul.

S​cience Alert wondered whether Hollywood had favoured blood and gore over realism and asked UK virus experts Professor Nigel Dimmock of the University of Warwick, and Dr. Roger Grand of the University of Birmingham to sort science fact from movie science fiction. And their verdict wasn't good.

In order to protect Pitt, “the immunizing virus would have to be related antigenically to the zombie virus, either evolutionarily or by happenstance, to cause a cross-reactive immunity,” ​Dimmock told us.

Grand added the chances of Pitt choosing such a virus was slim, as immunity to one organism will only give immunity to other very closely related species. “Antibodies and T cells recognise very specific pathogens or pathogenic proteins and so are aimed precisely at one target,” ​which he said was “the whole basis of the immune response.”

Most vaccines consist of a dead or inactive virus that is given to a patient to elicit an immune response, according to Grand, who conceded that by infecting himself with one virus to protect from another Pitt may have "‘primed’ the immune system to respond better to a further infection.”

However, he continued, “this would only give a marginally better immune response so from a practical point of view would not help much.”


In 1796, Jenner injected an eight-year old boy with the cow-pox virus to immunise him against smallpox - an antigenically-related but much more virulent and deadly virus. This ‘clinical trial’ effectively gave birth to modern vaccination approaches, even supplying the name (‘Vacca’ is Latin for cow).

Pitt’s self-medication and trial-and-error approach echoes Jenner’s gamble, which led to asking if such an approach has any place in medicine today.

Grand was not convinced. “These days there is a massive scientific resource available for clinical trials so there is no real need to resort to the ‘Jenner approach.’”

However, he added the internet is seeing a rise in people with incurable diseases resorting to self-treatment and side-stepping clinical research, as reported in an article in The Scientist​ last March.

Self-medication aside, there are cases of viral infection being investigated unconventionally.

According to Dimmock, “one key direction of research into HIV and AIDS is to study people who remain well despite being infected by the virus, or having a life style through which they would be expected to be infected but actually remain free of HIV.”

Zombies vs Science

Though World War Z swaps real science for brain-eating spectres, it does at least allude to the complexities of vaccinations and tips its hat -knowingly or otherwise - to Edward Jenner.

Many films have abused science to evoke entertainment before and this trend will set to continue, playing on people’s morbid interest and/or fear in medicine. As Dimmock put it, “The media in general seem to find infectious diseases [whether flesh-eating bacteria, MRSA, HIV, pandemic flu etc] are good copy.”

Grand added: “Real science is not very cinematic – from a visual/dramatic point of view its very slow and boring but if you can latch a disaster movie on to it, it obviously becomes more interesting.”

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