Could cordyceps, the fungus on 'The Last of Us,' actually spur a pandemic?

While infectious disease specialists are hesitant to never say "never," the current environment we live in would have to change considerably to create a real-life fungus pandemic based on cordyceps, the fungus on the hit HBO show "The Last of Us." 

Cordyceps is a real fungus, but it's not a human fungal pathogen. It can't survive at human body temperatures.  

"Fungi are everywhere, although only a small subset of genus and species cause human disease,” said David Perlin, PhD, chief scientific officer and executive vice president of Hackensack Meridian Health's Center for Discovery and Innovation in Nutley, N.J., in a Feb. 23 Fortune article. 

Dr. Perlin, also editor of The Journal of Fungi, said cordyceps is more likely to infect ants and other insects. 

The jury is out on whether there could ever be a fungi-induced pandemic; however, Dr. Perlin says even if it's possible, cordyceps likely wouldn't be the root cause. 

The World Health Organization in October 2022 released a list of priority fungal pathogens. Cordyceps is not on the list.

"We do understand that a changing environment creates new niche opportunities for emerging microbes," Dr. Perlin said. "I've been around too many microorganisms, bacteria, fungi [and] viruses that adapt to situations." 

In fact, similar to the way climate change and differing temperatures depicted on the popular TV show provides an opportunity for the fungi to adapt, Dr. Perlin points to global warming as a concern when it comes to the adaptability of germs. 

“With global warming, there is the potential for many more species that can adapt and thrive at much higher temps,” Dr. Perlin said, noting a high fever that accompanies another disease could offer the chance for fungi like cordyceps to thrive.  

So, could cordyceps find its way into creating a full-fledged pandemic as shown on "The Last of Us?" 

Dr. Perlin doesn't say "no." 

"The pragmatist in me says this could never happen," he said, "but the realist in me says to be open to possibilities."

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