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This is a follow up question to my earlier question what makes a disease deadly?

In my book, the villain, a biology professor inspired by Ted Kaczynski, wants to revert humanity into a hunter gatherer state by collapsing society. For this, she releases a modified virus at the olympic games, that makes women infertile by destroying their egg cells. That way, birthrates around the world collapse, and humanity dies off without direct violence.

So either, the only remaining societies that are unaffected are somewhat isolated, usually tribal societies, or it is assumed, that more complex societies like the west require large population numbers to run, so they would collapse eventually, after a short "mad max" period.

Now I am looking for the ideal virus my scientist would employ. It should:

  1. make women infertile (ideally permanently)
  2. spread very rapidly, ideally airborne
  3. have a long incubation time, so that it spreads without being found
  4. be contagious as fast as possible
  5. be hard to cure

So my question:

What virus would be the best basis for such a virus?

Edit: the reason I specified women is, that women are more important then men when it comes to reproduction. A single man can produce another baby basically every day. A woman only every 8 month. If you had a society of 99 women and one man, everything would be fine. The other way around, not. So thats why I want my virus to target women. I am sorry, if my original post came of as mysagonistic. That was not my intention. The question is serious

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of frozen eggs about. Consider something more Zika-like instead: doesn't render anyone infertile, is spread by multiple vectors (including sex) but causes serious birth defects. Who'd want to get pregnant then? $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 12 '19 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ woman can not create new eggs over their lifetime, so if they are destroyed once, they are destroyed forever (which is why I specified infertile because of eggs). That would cause irreparable damage. The idea with the frozen eggs is very good! Do you know how many eggs are frozen worldwide? $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 12 '19 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ 1 question per post, thanks $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Dec 12 '19 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ No existing disease will do everything you are looking for but there is a very close match in James M. Tabor's book, Frozen Solid. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Dec 12 '19 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ If it's not critical to attack women, you can have your ecoterrorist attack male gametes via modified mumps, which causes sterility. You said you want a population crash, not extinction... $\endgroup$ – arp Dec 12 '19 at 20:45
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Maybe you would be interested in a bacteria, rather than a virus? My suggestion would be Brucella abortus, a bacteria which causes Brucellosis.

First, a quick introduction. Brucellosis occurs in two main stages. The first stage is flu-like: fever, sweating, soreness, and GI symptoms are common at this stage. If the brucellosis remains untreated or is treated ineffectually, it can progress to become a chronic infection which can linger for life, as the bacteria infects the intracellular space in the body and is hard to target with antibiotics. The particular strain I am recommending is B. abortus, which occurs mainly in cattle but can infect humans and other animals. This strain also has a low mortality rate, typically around 2%, so you won't be outright murdering (too many) people.

Now, let's go over your wishlist, and I'll discuss what B. abortus gets you and what you would need to modify:

1. make women infertile (ideally permanently)

Notice the name of the bacteria, B. abortus. The main noticeable effect of the disease in cattle is infertility and miscarriage. I am uncertain to what degree this also occurs in humans, but one listed symptom of brucellosis is miscarriage so it's definitely possible. Perhaps apply a little bit of genetic tweaking or selective breeding, and you could easily have a pathogen which makes having children very difficult.

2. spread very rapidly, ideally airborne

Back in the 50s when the US had a bioweapons program, it was found that brucellosis-causing bacteria survive drying very well, and can be effectively spread as an aerosol. The US military even developed a cluster bomb meant to disperse the bacteria as an aerosol, although apparently they weren't happy with how effectively the bomb spread the bacteria.

In addition, the bacteria are easily spread via ingestion. Everyone needs to drink, so infecting the Olympic water supply would likely be equally as effective and possibly more subtle.

The main drawback here is that person-to-person spread is rare, and typically occurs via sexual transmission. You would need a modification here to allow the attack to affect more than just the initially infected population. Given how well the bacteria survive as an aerosol, breeding a strain that can live in the lungs and be spread via coughing/sneezing should do.

3. have a long incubation time, so that it spreads without being found

Typical incubation times are two weeks to a year. B. abortus has got this, no modification needed. As a bonus, the test to determine B. abortus infection takes weeks to culture and poses a significant risk of infection to laboratory workers, so you'll gain both some time and some victims.

4. be contagious as fast as possible

Again, it is typically not contagious human-to-human without sexual contact. But since you'll need to do something about this anyway if you intend to use B. abortus for your story, you may as well say that the aerosolized bacteria is present in the breath of infected persons before symptoms appear, or that the earliest symptoms of the modified form are sneezing and coughing. The same modification that gets you human-to-human transmission in the first place could get you this as well.

5. be hard to cure

I expect this is why you specified a virus in the first place, since we have antibiotics. Hear me out, though: antibiotic resistance. B. abortus is difficult to treat with antibiotics in the first place, requiring multi-week long courses of multiple antibiotics at once. This is because it hides so effectively in the intracellular spaces of the body. Now imagine that your mad scientist had been running a simple selective breeding program for a few years: culture some B. abortus, expose the colonies to an antibiotic at levels too low to kill the entire population, and re-culture the survivors. Repeat with all effective antibiotics (streptomycin, doxycycline, gentamicin, co-trimoxazole, rifampin, etc), and you have a bacterial infection which is untreatable.

It's even better than that, though. The bacteria is not only untreatable at this stage, but hospitals would likely not immediately notice that treatments are not working. Since a typical course of treatment takes between two weeks and a month and a half, it would likely be about that long before doctors noted that the infections were not getting better as expected. This would further delay effective response to the outbreak, and would help ensure widespread chronic infection leading to severe population decline.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is perfect, thank you! Especially for taking your time and answering in so much detail. You are great :) $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 13 '19 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanBöcker You're welcome! Hopefully I didn't just get myself put on (another) list $\endgroup$ – realityChemist Dec 13 '19 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ haha yeah I hope so too... Did that really ever happen to you? I am a bit worried now... They might prevent my evil plans after all ;) $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 13 '19 at 3:25
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A modified strain of the Zika virus might do the trick.

make women infertile (ideally permanently)

Zika is known to cause microcephaly in babies even years after the mother has had the Zika fever. So while it does not cause women to be infertile, it guarantees that their offspring will likely either not live very long or be unable to reproduce anyway.

spread very rapidly, ideally airborne

Zika is chiefly spread by mosquitoes, but can also be transmitted sexually or by blood transfusions. Children may be born healthy from an infected mother but they will also be infected.

have a long incubation time, so that it spreads without being found

Incubation time for Zika is relatively short, but the microcephaly causing trait persists even after the immune system has defeated the disease. This is the scariest thing about Zika. There are some scientists that believe Zika is transmissible forever once you catch it.

be contagious as fast as possible

There were scary outbreaks in Brazil in the last three years.

be hard to cure

Like I said before, the fever which is characteristic to Zika passes, but you practically have the virus forever. There is no known cure.


So Zika mostly fits the bill. Either modify it, or write about a hitherto unknown related virus (Zika belongs to the same family of viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever). A modified virus might be able to be transmissible airborne and to cause a completely asymptomatic infection - you'll only notice things are wrong when a lot of women are having kids with microcephaly, which may also be caused by a number of other things. It will be very hard to fight that disease.

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  • $\begingroup$ I can not thank you enough for answering in so much detail. If I could, I would both of you the most helpful solution! I don't know yet, which option I will choose, but both look (scarily) great for my purpose. Thank you very much! $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Böcker Dec 13 '19 at 2:20

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