There’s a fungus among us — and it’s taking over.
HBO’s new series “The Last of Us” features a world ravaged by a fungal outbreak that has transformed most of the population into flesh-craving zombies. As the outbreak spread, civilization quickly collapsed, with only a handful of strictly enforced quarantine zones left as holdouts.
Where did the infection start and what are its effects? After each episode of “The Last of Us,” we’ll add what we know. Warning, there are spoilers ahead.
When Does ‘The Last of Us’ Fungus Outbreak Start?
Episode 2 of “The Last of Us,” aptly named “Infected,” reveals the origin of the outbreak.
On September 24, 2003, Indonesian police enlist the help of Ibu Ratna, Professor of Mycology at the University of Indonesia, to conduct an autopsy on a local woman.
A specimen taken from the deceased woman reveals that she was infected with cordyceps — a genus of fungus. Cordyceps typically do not survive in humans, which makes their discovery alarming.
The woman worked at a flour grain factory, which Ratna calls “a perfect substrate” — the optimum place for the fungus to grow. Thirty hours prior, the deceased woman suddenly became violent and attacked three coworkers. All four were put down, but whoever bit her was still loose, and now 14 workers are unaccounted for.
In Episode 1 of “The Last of Us,” viewers are introduced to the series protagonist, Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and his family at the onset of the outbreak. The Millers reside in Texas, but over the radio they hear of disturbances in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The timeline then jumps to the present — 2023 — where Joel is a resident/worker in the Boston quarantine zone.
How Does the Infection Spread?
The infection appears to spread via spores in the air.
In 2003, Sarah is visiting her neighbors, the Adlers, when Nana Adler becomes infected while simply sitting by the window. Nana’s face contorts and she lets out a silent scream, but Sarah doesn’t notice.
The infection also spreads via an infected’s bite. Mycelium, thread-like tendrils, emerge from an Infected mouth and can transmit through another person’s mouth or a wound.
How Quickly Does the Infection Spread?
As Sarah leaves to return home, the Adlers’ dog recognizes something is wrong. Three hours later, Sarah hears sirens in the distance, helicopters flying overhead and the dog scratching at the window.
When she goes over to return the dog, she discovers Nana has attacked the Adlers. Nana lunges at Sarah, but Joel intervenes and kills Nana by striking her in the head.
In 2023, a poster in the quarantine zone outlines the time to full infection based on the location of the infection wound:
- Neck, face, head — 5-15 minutes til full infection
- Torso, arm, shoulder, hand — 2-8 hours til full infection
- Leg, foot — 12-14 hours til full infection
What Does the Infection Do?
The infection takes over a person’s cognitive functions, turning them into mindless, flesh-craving zombies. It also takes over their motor functions. In the case of Nana — who was wheelchair bound — the infection restored her ability to walk and even run.
In 2023, Joel and Tess stumble upon the body of a man whose body has exploded after being infected with the fungus now growing on the wall.
In Episode 2, Tess explains the fungus can spread over a vast area, serving as a network for the cordyceps. Movement in one area can be detected up to a mile away. The survivors discover this the hard way after killing one Infected in the state hall alerts the other infected in the Boston area.
However, it does appear the fungus can “burnt out” or be rendered inert in some areas as well.
What Types of Infected Are There in “The Last of Us”?
People who are recently infected, like Nana, are referred to as “runners.” Per their name, they tend to rush toward their prey.
Episode 2 introduces “clickers.” These are people who have been infected for over a year and the fungus has grown over their heads, rendering them blind. They still can hear very well and are super strong. Joel, Ellie and Tess fight off two “clickers” in the Boston museum.
Is the Infection Detectable?
By 2023, mankind has developed the ability to detect cordyceps.
A boy who stumbles into the Boston quarantine zone is scanned. His scan turns red, showing he is infected. Later, Joel disposes of the boy’s body in an incinerator.
A poster on the wall outlines the symptoms of cordyceps infection: coughing, slurred speech, muscle spasms and mood change.
At the end of Episode 1, the FEDRA soldier Lee scans Joel, Tess and Ellie. Joel and Tess’s scans are green, but Ellie’s scan is red.
Is There a Cure?
As of now, there doesn’t appear to be a cure for infection.
In Jakarta, when asked about a cure, Professor Ratna answers, “There is no medicine. There is no vaccine.” Her only recommendation? Bombing the city and everyone in it.
In Episode 2, it was revealed that Boston and other major metropolitans were bombed, which only slowed the infection temporarily.
Ellie has survived despite claiming to have been bitten three weeks prior, so there may be something unique about her physiology preventing her from being infected.
Otherwise, according to the poster, she should’ve been fully infected within 2 to 8 hours.
Ellie is confirmed to be immune when she is bitten again in Episode 2 and does not turn.