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I am writing a story, in which a mad scientist (based on Ted Kaczynski) wants to kill as many people as possible with an artificially created disease. The idea is, that more complex societies are better able to solve many small problems (wildfire, etc.) compared to hunter-gatherer societies, because of the possibility of resource distribution. However, complex societies are affected more strongly by big problems, because so many systems are interdependent. So, if enough people in food production, energy production etc. die, then everything collapses. People today are very dependent on Walmart etc, and if the food distribution failed, we could not just quickly go back to local farming.

So my question is: What kind of disease would such a villain use? I picked a bacterium, because it seem to me bacteria are more malleable with genetic engineering. Is that true? How do different factors, like incubation time, the method with which it spreads, and deadliness, affect total kill count? Many of the deadliest diseases like the plague occurred before we had access to antibiotics. Does that change anything, and if it does, would it be realistic for a biology professor to have access to the held back antibiotics to make the bacteria immune?

Instead of killing people directly, would the "stealthy" approach of making people infertile, similar to mosquito killing gene drives, work? Would it be enough to make a portion of the public infertile, or would humanity just evolve resistance to the virus?

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    $\begingroup$ Potentially a duplicate of the following. The questions are quite different, but I think the answer to your question is included in the answers to this one. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/52149/… $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Dec 8 '19 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ thank you very much :) $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ I think I found the idea I am going to use. The virus will not kill, but instead render people infertile. That way it will be detected far later. A "missing generation" could do quite a lot amount of damage, and gene drives with this idea already exist for mosquitos $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ One problem with using a gene drive to wipe out humanity is that unlike mosquitoes, we can do fertility testing. It will not be hard to simply ensure that only fertile people marry. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Dec 9 '19 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ That is true. I have settled on a funghal infction with a big incubation time.That way, it can be spread world wide from a single location, and still do a lot of damage. I will still use the infertility, because it makes the villain more believable as someone who thinks he is doing the right thing. But now, noone, will have babies. Ofc, that means, that they have around 40 years to cure the disease and have babies again. I will look into infertility some more :) Perhaps one or two missing generations might be enough :) $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 9 '19 at 0:55
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I'm not an epidemiologist, but I do a lot of computer science and at a high level, infection in computer networks and in humans have a lot in common. Ultimately both come down to two factors - transmissability and payload.

Let's discuss transmissability first. In epidemiology, there is a factor called R0, or R-nought. This was made famous in the movie Contagion, but if you check the link you get a more realistic definition of the term. Ultimately though, the higher the R value, the more infectious it is and therefore the harder it is to control. Ebola for example has an R value of around 2. Measles, depending on where you are, has an R value between 12 and up to 20.

In most of history, the really deadly diseases have not been as infectious as the ones that cause less severe symptoms. When that balance is breached, we have major 'plagues' that wipe out a lot of people and make the pages of history. This comes down to the payload. Whether it is a bacterial infection or a viral, or even fungal, if it spreads easily and has hard to treat and severe symptoms, you'll have trouble with it.

Personally, I'd go with fungal. Mushrooms and their poor cousins are scarier than you might think and these days we have antibiotics to treat most bacterial infections (although some are becoming highly resistant to our antibiotics, just look up MRSA) and we are also making good headway with anti-virals at the moment, but I haven't read a lot on good anti-fungals of late. These things can be lethal - just look at the death cap mushroom and of course the creepy Cordyceps mushroom.

The point being, that if you can get fungal spores to reach a high value through sneezing or some other form of spread by infected people and animals, then humans currently don't have a lot of defence against them, and we already know that they are capable of killing us.

So; ultimately you need to design a disease that is really infectious and hard to treat while also being fatal, preferably over a long enough period that the person can infect others, but not so long that we have time to treat them. Ideally, like many versions of the common cold, they'd remain asymptomatic (not showing any signs of having the disease) for several weeks while still being contagious, so that they are infecting many others before they manifest the symptoms that lead to them being quarantined.

A final word on antibiotics and the idea of the 'right' ones being held back by the designer of a disease - you don't have to do that. There are already some bacteria that are becoming resistant to the antibiotics we currently have, and ultimately we are in a constant arms race with bacteria, finding more effective antibiotics to kill them while they adapt to our treatments. In point of fact, our use of antibiotics is accelerating the evolution of these bacteria, only allowing the most resistant of them to survive our treatments. So, even if you are looking at a bacterium for your disease, you don't need to 'withhold' a specific antibiotic, you just need to release a disease that has become resistant to the current wave of antibiotics. It's going to take time to counteract it and by that time, you've already killed off a lot of people.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much :) I didn't even think of mushrooms. So you have given me a lot to consider :D A quick point on the Antibiotics: my english is terrible, sorry about that, so I think there has been some miscommunication. I thought, that the government held back some antibiotics for new plagues etc, not the villain of the story. The question was, wheather the villain would reallistically have the ability to get his hands on these worst case antibiotics to breed in a resistance. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanBöcker Anthrax is a good model for payload, but not for infection - it's actually quite hard for one person to infect another with anthrax through casual contact. That said, increasing the methods for spore release by infected people (probably through sneezing) with this disease for the purposes of your story would make for a compelling disease related disaster. Good luck with it. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Dec 8 '19 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ I have one (hopefully last) question. My villain will try to spread spores at an international sport event. These will not be deadly, but instead ideally have no symptoms, except that they make the victim infertile. This would be done, so that damage could be inflicted, but without revealing the mushroom immediately before it is too late. Would I have to make everyone infertile, to destroy society, or would rates of say 10-20% be enough (by bringing the rate of avg children under 2). Has there ever been a case in history, in which an entire generation was "missing"? $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanBöcker not really, but we've certainly had some disease related disasters in the past. Some I can think of are the Justinian Plague and on a smaller scale, the Plague of London. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Dec 9 '19 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ The spanish flu also comes to mind. ran for about 2 years, killed 25~50 million people... $\endgroup$ – khaoliang Dec 9 '19 at 12:58
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one way is to have a bunch of bacteria and give it all the antibiotics slowly but surely, before releasing it. it is an actual problem of today where bacteria are adapting to the current antibiotics and are getting stronger, forcing us to make new better antibiotics. i know a lady who everytime she got sick, or got hurt she would take an antibiotic i think was called penticilin, and then when she got really sick and really needed to go to the doctors they realized she was taking too much and that the bacteria have evolved to get past it. so they had to kill the bacteria in her with a way stronger drug before anything bad happened, and had to give her a lesson on how they worked. so i would assume that using a lot of antibiotics to the point where a bacteria that is harmful to humans is practically unkillable, would be a neat way to give a narrative on todays medical field, and would be a cool plot thing.

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    $\begingroup$ thank you michael :) Do you know, if all antibiotics are available to the public and/or researchers? I know, that some antibiotics can not be perscribed and can only be given out in extreme cases. But a researcher might still have access to them :) Idk, what do you think? $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanBöcker A doctor could easily get their hands on a wide variety of antibiotics. Some, however, are particularly nasty. From what I have heard, some of our higher tier antibiotics are so good at their job that they can only be given to someone who is on dialysis -- the interferon released by all of those bacteria dying so quickly would overwhelm the kidneys and cause renal failure. Obviously our ability to apply those en masse is very limited. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 8 '19 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ Hey thats great, thank you :D Is that the reasoning for all rare antibiotics, or are there some reserved that could prevent spread? $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ I really can not thank you all enough! Your community is extremely helpful! (in the biology stack exchange, the same questions almost got me banned ;) ) I think, I will use Tims advice, and use "anthrax, but it only renders you infertile" for my disease. This would also make my villain more humain, and less of a psychopath... Anyways, thank you, your answeres were both helpful and really insightful! $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 8 '19 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ @JonathanBöcker i'd understand why they would almost ban you, mister "i want to make a bacteria to kill the entire human race" lol. $\endgroup$ – michael griffin Dec 11 '19 at 3:54
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The disease is an infectious meme.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

The meme is transmitted rapidly and freely, mutating into many related memes as it goes. Large segments of the population do not realize the meme is a disease and so readily receive and propagate the infection. The meme strikes at the heart of what you recognize is the hallmark of advanced societies: the interdependence of systems and people.

The idea is, that more complex societies are better able to solve many small problems (wildfire etc) compared to hunter gatherer societies, because of the possibility of resource distribution, but are effected more strongly by big problems, because so many systems are interdependent.

The infectious meme is that elements of society are not pulling their weight in the system, or are evil and should not be included in the cooperative society, or should be contained, or should be destroyed. Almost half of the society is in the targeted group.

Infectious ideas have been responsible for several genocides. Such ideas are dangerous because like a disease where the immune system attacks the organism, ideas like this harness the problem solving power of the complex society to solve the problem of the undesirable population within it.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for your comment. It is certainly a very interesting and creative idea :) I started to write my book, because I watched manhunt: Unabomber, and asked myself, what would have happened, if Ted actually ment what he said and dedicated himself to destroying society, instead of killing random people. So I think I will stick to the biological warfare idea. However, I think I might consider writing a manifesto, similar to industrial society and its future, to also include the meme idea. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 9 '19 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ The reason I want to stick to the infection, and not the spread of an idea, is that the latter case usually leaves survivers. Some portion of the public always thinks they are the good guys (the ones to start the revolution) and will not reflect critically on themselves. And then they will just build the old society back again, with them on top (look at all the communist revlutions, where in the end a dictator always had the same power, the king/Zar had before). And if all people see themselves as the evil group, they will probably not act at all. People rarely realize when they are bad $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 9 '19 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ Best of all, there is already a subset of people who are the villains in every movie, regarded as the root of all evil by many media outlets and have been called the cause of all of society's problems by many bloggers! They're easy targets for self justified mass violence! :) $\endgroup$ – Muuski Dec 9 '19 at 23:15
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I think a virus is better, because a bacteria can be easily killed by antibiotics. Bacteria, can become antibiotic resistant, but you need to consider that there are hundreds of antibiotics and new one can still be developed. Create a cure for a virus is much harder.

[Synthetic_virology][1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_virology is possible even if it is still a branch of research.

The best virus to kill most people is a virus that spread himself very fast, it should spread through air and start infection of respiratory organs. As flu or cold, this kind of virus can easily infect most people of the world.

But to be perfect, the virus should be also highly mutable and hide himself from immunitary system, at the start of the infection it should cause very slow sympthoms to avoid to alarm people.

As example you can take HIV, because it hides very well in the host victim, and make it spread like cold.

Then you just need to add a last stage, the virus after several months/years of incubation develops a hemorrhagic fever like ebola that will kill most of the population.

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    $\begingroup$ Not all bacteria are easily killed by antibiotics! who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance $\endgroup$ – Nate Barbettini Dec 9 '19 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ However, I really like an aspect of your answer: a virus that has a long incubation period (even months/years) adds an additional layer of dread that could be used well for storytelling. It's one thing to wear a breathing mask because you're afraid of airborne bacteria, it's quite another to discover that you were already infected many months ago and it's only a matter of time. $\endgroup$ – Nate Barbettini Dec 9 '19 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ I know there is antibiotic resistance, as far I know there are no bacteria resistant to all antibiotics. In fact the big problem is that we commonly use very few classes of antibiotics that are very cheap to produce. There are some antibiotics that cost thousands of dollars per dose and they are used only in exceptional case. We continue to discover new antibiotics, but research is becoming expensive and more expensive, that's why antibiotic resistance is a big deal. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Balzarotti Dec 9 '19 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ With viruses is different, develop a cure is much more complicated, there are virus like hiv that after dacades of research and billions spent we don't have a definitive cure yet. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Balzarotti Dec 9 '19 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed! I upvoted your answer :) $\endgroup$ – Nate Barbettini Dec 9 '19 at 21:59

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