At the risk of almost repeating a question I asked some time ago...

Scenario: A character has been cured of a deadly disease, but all records of the cure have been destroyed (files, actual meds, etc). Now the character is facing the decision of staying in a place of safety, or leaving this place in order to share the information of the cure with others.

My question is: Is this a false dilemma? Is there a situation in which the person would be needed in order to "reverse engineer" a cure, or would a simple blood sample be sufficient? I'm trying to work up a dramatic plot moment, but I don't have the medical knowledge to know if this is realistic. Appreciate any feedback!

Edit: I should add that the character is able to freeze a blood or tissue sample if necessary. So, yeah. I just made it even harder to make this dramatic plot twist. My foot hurts from shooting it, but what can ya do???

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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean "fictional" disease? "Fictitious" disease would seem to indicate he wasn't sick in the first place, and it was all a ruse of some sort which makes a nonsense of the rest of the question. $\endgroup$ – Bitter dreggs. Sep 2 '19 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ Um, no, I just mean "fictional" as in a work of fiction on my part. It's very real in the character's world. $\endgroup$ – cal Sep 2 '19 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Please edit your question to change the word as @Chickensarenotcows suggests. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 2 '19 at 15:19

The thing with samples is that sometimes the tests you need to run on them consume them, so you finish a test with less source material than what you initially had.

To illustrate this: whenever we think of the human immunological system, we think of white blood cells. But they are just a part of that system. There is a subsystem called the complement system. It is the most awesome part of our defenses, composed solely of nanomachines (well, proteins...) that can do things like piercing bacteria cellular membranes so they "bleed" to death. Here is a Kurzgesagt video on it.

In order to test whether your character's immunity lies somewhere in the complement system, you've got to make it react, and that is a one way route. Once you have taken a bit of plasma to test it, you can't test it again.

"Oh," you say, "but I could test it only once to see if that's where immunity lies". No, you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you spend all of it to test, you don't have anymore to copy. Also, you can't just test once - there might be thousands of contaminants in the pathogen sample you have, and even then, testing just once is bad science. You need to run multiple blind tests to see if you've actually got a potential cure.

So if all you have is a sample, you are out of luck. If you have a living body that is immune to the plague you wish to cure, you can extract a lot more samples. Just try to keep them alive.


So first of all, blood vaccines are hard to make and take a lot of time and specialist knowledge and equipment. They are very expensive as a consequence. There are only going to be a handful of labs around the world in a post-apocalyptic environment that have a chance of still being up and running AND be capable of producing such a vaccine. That means that your blood samples are likely to travel for a long time, and there's a very high chance that they will degrade over that time, especially if the chilling solution isn't so reliable or requires recharging and the like along the way.

But, there IS a perfect blood preservation system available; the host. It does make sense in all but a handful of scenarios to ship the person between labs, draw the blood directly, make them comfortable so they can do so again if they stuff the first sample up, etc. and once the blood serum has been developed and is ready for replication, ship the cure to the less adept labs for replication.

You don't need as fancy a lab to replicate a cure (especially with instructions on how to do it) as you need to develop one in the first place, so arguably there may be a strong need to get the person to a lab that can develop the blood serum but not to subsequent labs. All this of course is dependent on the immune person remaining immune for an extended period, and that immunity being blood borne, being the reason why a blood sample is being considered as a viable option.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, Tim. In this instance, chilling or freezing a sample for preservation would be an option...so, yeah. Another reason I was wondering if the person would necessarily have to be physically present. $\endgroup$ – cal Sep 2 '19 at 3:01
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    $\begingroup$ Vaccines are not remedies; they cannot cure a disease. The point of a vaccine is to avoid catching the disease in the first place. Identifying the disease specific antibodies is not a big deal -- any pacient who caught the disease will have them; the survivor's antibodies are not better than anybody else's. As for hoping to find what antivirals or antibiotics they were given, that won't work because those will have been literally pissed off a long time ago. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 2 '19 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP No, you're thinking prophylactic vaccines specifically. Some vaccines can also cure diseases that are already present. Many diseases have also been cured (or had prophylactic vaccines developed for) through investigating people who are immune for whatever reason, including the original smallpox vaccine (which is prophylactic, mind). $\endgroup$ – Luaan Sep 2 '19 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, I think there are "therapeutic" vaccines being studied -- vaccines that treat an illness. In a sci-fi world, I could believe one has been developed. All that aside, I'm good with just focusing on the more vague term "cure," which could mean anything ha! $\endgroup$ – cal Sep 2 '19 at 12:03

It depends on how the cure worked. If it was surgical, it's possible doctors could look at the scar tissue and perhaps see what exactly was done, i.e. if they removed or altered some piece of tissue.

If it relied on boosting your immune system, the antibodies should be easily detected in a blood sample. That's just the first step towards re-developing the cure, but it's an important one.

If it was medicine-based, it's possible that a blood sample would not be enough; most things don't stay in your blood forever. Even worse, many medicines don't end up in your blood in the form you took them. They rely on your metabolism to convert to their effective forms. So you may see the effective chemical in a blood sample, but not know what chemical it started as.

  • $\begingroup$ The exact same antibodies would be detected in the blood of any person who caught the disease... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 2 '19 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Not necessarily, some diseases don't trigger the immune system, and therefore antibodies are never made. I believe some experiments to fight cancer tries to create artificial antibodies that trigger only on the cancer, and let the immune system deal with it. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mortensen Sep 2 '19 at 8:54

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