Online 'blood plague' offers lessons for pandemics

Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:10pm EDT
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By Andrew Marshall, Asia Political Risk Correspondent

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - In the dungeons of Zul'Gurub frequented by online game enthusiasts, a giant winged serpent called Hakkar the Soulflayer may offer important clues to epidemiologists trying to predict the impact of a pandemic.

In September 2005, a plague called "Corrupted Blood" caused mayhem in the hugely popular online game World of Warcraft. What happened next illustrates the kind of issues policymakers will have to grapple with if a deadly outbreak of swine flu in Mexico spreads.

An estimated 4 million players were affected by the pandemic, and by the time it had run its course, whole virtual cities were littered with the bones of the dead, with most survivors fleeing urban areas for the relative sanctuary of the countryside.

Epidemiologists and disaster planners have tried for years to build realistic models of how a highly virulent disease might spread and impact global society and the economy.

But the Corrupted Blood plague accidentally provided something unprecedented -- a chance to safely study a pandemic in a uniquely complex virtual environment in which millions of unpredictable individuals were making their own decisions.

In an article in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal in 2007, Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren of the Tufts University School of Medicine said the incident "raised the possibility for valuable scientific content to be gained from this unintentional game error" -- providing insight into real-world pandemics.

Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft, never intended the plague to get so out of control.

At first, it could only be encountered by relatively advanced players who had penetrated deep into a new dungeon provided as part of a software update. Among the many offensive powers of Hakkar -- others included "blood siphon" and "cause insanity" -- was the ability to spread the Corrupted Blood plague.   Continued...

<p>Researchers at the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service (NVRQS) examine samples taken from pork imported from Mexico at the NVRQS centre in Anyang, south of Seoul April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap</p>