What If Earth Suffered an Alien Pandemic? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
What would happen if an alien pandemic struck Earth? In this video, Unveiled discovers how an extraterrestrial illness could spell the end for humanity... Whether it arrived through accidental panspermia or as an act of alien war, if an alien microbe took nest on Earth then it could quickly destroy the planet!

What if Earth Suffered an Alien Pandemic?

Diseases of all types pose a constant threat to humanity. New pathogens are emerging all the time as viruses and bacteria mutate and grow, making the fight against them feel like an uphill battle. But what would happen if an unprecedented disease from a completely different planet arrived in our atmosphere?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if Earth suffered an alien pandemic?

We currently have no evidence to confirm that intelligent life exists beyond Earth. This isn’t to say that intelligent aliens definitely don’t exist, either… but when the universe is so incomprehensibly huge, and traveling fast enough to reach other planets in a reasonable length of time is next to impossible, it’s more probable that if they are out there, they’re incredibly far away. For today’s question, though, stereotypically evil aliens which specifically target our world aren’t necessarily required! Because, even without intelligent aliens, there are other ways an extraterrestrial pathogen could reach Earth - like panspermia.

The panspermia hypothesis suggests that life on other planets (and potentially even ours) originates from alien microbes spread around the universe by meteors, space dust or spacecraft. It’s already been proposed that the necessary ingredients for life on Earth reached our planet in this way, but the theory doesn’t only apply to things that may have happened in the past. We know that debris from space falls to Earth and other planets all the time… and we also know that some small lifeforms, like certain bacteria, could theoretically survive in space long enough to reach us. Put these two things together and it means that, if alien life exists anywhere at all in the cosmos, then one day a stray meteor could potentially shower us in space dust containing an alien pathogen - an extraterrestrial bacterium or virus naturally bent on causing us harm.

But what would an alien pandemic actually look like? Already on Earth, we have plenty of diseases and disorders with unusual symptoms, some of which are viral or infectious. Many disease breakouts on Earth are respiratory illnesses, for example, like tuberculosis, which can affect millions of people… while others like coronaviruses, influenza viruses, or even the common cold can also be deadly, especially for vulnerable groups. One of the strangest disease outbreaks in history might not have been a “disease” at all as, in 1518, the city of Strasbourg was overcome with a “dancing plague” in which hundreds of people danced through the streets for weeks on end, many of them ultimately dying of heart attacks and exhaustion. The only tangible theory we have today for that one is that the dancers had consumed ergot, a fungus genetically similar to the psychoactive drug LSD, but most medical professionals argue that even this doesn’t truly explain what happened. The leading verdict, still, on the “dancing plague” is that it was an outbreak of mass hysteria. Regardless, were an alien pathogen to arrive, perhaps we’d see similarly unexplained results.

Some scientists have, in fact, looked into the possibility of pandemics on other planets, in search of an answer to one of the questions that the Fermi Paradox poses: that if intelligent civilizations exist, why haven’t we found any yet? Two exoplanet researchers, Stephen Kane and Franck Selsis, looked into the possibility of zombies on other worlds. Now, the study was part of an April Fool’s joke, but the paper (called “A Necro-Biological Explanation for the Fermi Paradox”), still had some science behind it - finding, for example, that a planet hosting a zombie outbreak would also be producing very high quantities of hydrogen sulfide, something which we (on Earth) could detect with the right equipment. The study was clearly harmless fun (and the rise of the alien undead hasn’t actually happened, yet!), but it’s still true that the Fermi Paradox might only be solved when and if we record the outbreak of an alien disease. Which isn’t exactly an encouraging thought…

While it’s possible that a microbe from a distant world might float here through panspermia, however, whenever alien contagions appear in popular culture, such a non-confrontational cause is very rarely the case. Often, in books, films and video games, an alien disease comes in the form of a biological weapon - with one of the most famous examples seen in the “Alien” movies. Here, it takes just one facehugger to eliminate an entire settlement of humans and start up a xenomorph colony… with potential xenomorph bio-weaponization becoming a key plot point in the franchise.

This fear of an alien bio-weapon isn’t exactly unfounded, either. Humans have been using biological weapons for thousands of years, with the earliest recorded example dating back as far as 1,500 BC; when it’s said that animals suffering “rabbit fever”, or tularemia, were forced into enemy territory to cause an outbreak of the disease. The Mongol Empire under the leadership of Genghis Khan also famously used early biological weapons, by catapulting dead animals into fortresses under siege. Other examples include in the 18th century, when British soldiers allegedly gave the blankets of smallpox patients to Native Americans to spread the illness to them… while, most recently, we’ve seen anthrax used by bio-terrorists, such as in 2001 when anthrax spores were mailed out in the US, claiming multiple victims.

With humans, then, having such a history of spreading diseases to each other, it’s not surprising that the idea of unfriendly aliens wanting to do the same thing has caught on. After all, aliens advanced enough to reach Earth and presumably observe it over time, would also likely be advanced enough to engineer a means specifically designed to attack humans while leaving all of Earth’s other flora and fauna intact. The planet would then be theirs, with the people removed. Whether this would be because they wanted to claim Earth as a new homeland, or they were concerned with humanity’s treatment of the environment, or even just because they wanted Earth’s resources but didn’t want a war… an alien pandemic would enable our other-worldly visitors to take over our planet without risking their own lives.

Would we be able to stop it, though? Well, diseases on Earth - the diseases we can, at least, comprehend - are constantly evolving and changing, with pandemics happening roughly once in a generation. Even today, they remain incredibly difficult to battle, and that’s including the spread of illnesses we’ve already been fighting for centuries. We have vaccines and other medicines to battle influenza strains, for example, but that doesn’t mean the flu doesn’t still claim thousands of lives year on year.

So, if we’re already having difficulty with Earthly illnesses, our chances of finding a cure for an alien virus, whether it was sent here on purpose or not, would be extremely slim. If life elsewhere in the universe is carbon-based and similar to our own (which is a big “if”), we might have a slight edge on an extraterrestrial outbreak… but if a germ or virus was truly unlike anything we’d ever seen, if it fundamentally functioned in totally new ways, then we could well be powerless to stop it. We would (hopefully!) still be able to curb infections by quarantining people… but developing a cure, or even something to combat the symptoms, could take years or even decades, or might never happen at all - considering that we don’t yet have a cure for even the relatively humble, common cold.

In any event, the managing of an alien pandemic and the potential development of a cure would require all the world’s governments to work together toward a shared goal. In global history to this point, we have seen examples of countries and regions working as one, but we’ve also had pandemics in the past seemingly mishandled by the authorities. The US government’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, for example, drew widespread criticism and was subsequently blamed by many for thousands of deaths which might otherwise have been avoided. Still, today, there are reports of various inconsistencies when it comes to developing and distributing HIV drugs, suggesting that we’re still to reach an effective and efficient response to the condition. Often, those who most urgently need the medication can’t afford the treatment. So, couldn’t the same thing happen in our fight against a pandemic “not of this world”? And if Earth didn’t show a united front against the threat, could humanity realistically hope to overcome it?

Finally, though, let’s give our hypothetical alien visitors at least a little bit of a fair trial. Because this last scenario is a lot less evil, even if it is still as dangerous. Looking at ourselves again, and while biological warfare may have been practiced on Earth for centuries, the very vast majority of diseases are spread completely by accident with no intention behind them. The Black Death goes down as the most devastating plague in human history, and it wasn’t spread on purpose. Just like humans can unwittingly carry diseases across continents which eventually ravage those who haven’t built up immunity, an alien traveller could easily bring a deadly pathogen with them without even realizing it. It could even be that some vital, unquestioned component of their own genetic make-up (that’s, naturally, completely harmless to them) translates into a world-ending superbug on our particular planet. The consequences would be much the same, just without the sci-fi style, all-conquering alien overlord to trigger them!

And, when you think about it, there’d be just as much chance that we, humanity, could accidentally inflict a devastating pandemic onto our alien visitors, too. Though the Martians in H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” definitely weren’t friendly, that’s what happened to them. If, at any time in our future we do cross paths with aliens, then cross-planetary contamination would be high on the list of things to consider! And that’s what could happen if Earth suffered an alien pandemic.