The second episode of the HBO series, “The Last of Us,” takes us back to the year 2003, when the first few cases of the Cordyceps Brain Infection (CBI) appeared in Jakarta, Indonesia. A well-known and renowned mycologist by the name of Ibu Ratna, who worked at the University of Indonesia was picked up by the authorities, in a manner that makes us realize the urgency of the issue. A sense of unease and tension could be felt in the environment, and soon enough, we realized that it was the beginning of the storm that had the potential to determine the fate of mankind. The officer named Agus Hidayat took Ibu Ratna inside a laboratory and asked her to check a slide on the microscope. Ibu Ratna observed the specimen and told the officer that it was Ophiocordyceps, but she couldn’t understand why they had used chlorazol to prepare the slide. The officer informed her that it was the preparation used for the samples that were taken from human beings. Ibu Ratna finds it quite absurd and tells the officer that Cordyceps couldn’t affect human beings. There was a moment of silence after she said that, and fear and distress could be seen in the officer’s eyes.
Ibu Ratna had years of experience in her field, which is why she spoke with a lot of authority on the subject. It was a widely known fact that Cordyceps only affected insects and other fungi. She couldn’t imagine in her wildest dreams that it could affect human beings as well. Ibu Ratna wore protective gear from head to toe to observe the dead body that had been infected by the fungus. She saw the infected leg and was petrified to see strands of fungi coming out of the mouth of the deceased. The instrument fell from her hand, and she came out of the observation room in disbelief and horror. The officer told her that the victim had died after being bitten by an infected person, and Ibu Ratna realized that they were way past the stage where they could control the damage and that the doom of mankind was imminent.
Ibu Ratna was in a state of shock, when she realized the reason behind the urgency of the officers. She started processing every detail once she calmed down and tried searching for rational explanations and contributing factors that had led to the spread of the deadly fungi. The speculations that were made by Dr. Neumann in 1968 actually came true. At that point, experts considered his claims to be baseless and preposterous in nature. In the first episode of “The Last of Us,” we saw that Dr. Neuman had expressed his concerns that a time might come when fungi would gain control over the nervous systems of human beings. He said that viruses had the potential to make a person ill, but fungi could alter the minds of people, making it more lethal than any other microorganisms. He explained that fungus, after entering the body, could act as a hallucinogen and start feeding upon the body of the host itself. In such cases, death becomes a means to end all misery, but the fungus doesn’t let that happen, and it keeps the host alive by preventing the decomposition of the body. The other expert on the panel, Dr. Schoenheiss, gasped at the absurdity and improbability of the statements made by his learned colleague. He was quick to remind the viewers that such fungi couldn’t affect humans, but Dr. Neumann rebutted him by saying that things could change if global warming caused a rise in the temperature of the earth in the coming years.
Jakarta’s tropical climate provided optimum conditions for the fungi to grow. As per the second episode, the outbreak had started at a flour and grain factory in the city. Ibu Ratna called flour a “perfect substrate,” implying that it provided the base for the fungus to thrive and devour the nourishment it needed. Well, that leads us to another important question: if flour and grains were the only substrates or mediums that caused the fungus to spread? The fungus’ cell wall consists of glycoproteins and carbohydrates, of which glucan amounts to roughly 60 percent of its dry weight. Glucan is found in maize, wheat, and all the other baked goods where yeast is used. It could be possible that the people who were on a high-carbohydrate diet and were eating all sorts of baked products like biscuits were more prone to the Cordyceps brain infection because, by consuming that stuff, they were giving the fungus an opportunity to thrive. At the beginning of the first episode of the series, “The Last of Us,” we heard Joel mention to his neighbors, who were offering him biscuits, that he was following the Atkins diet. In that diet, a person generally reduces the carbs and increases the amount of protein intake. That is why high-carb food products like pancakes were not present in the Miller household, and it could have been one of the reasons why they didn’t catch an infection. We saw that the old lady at the Adlers’ house was eating biscuits, and soon after that, she became infected. We believe that, though baking flour was the ideal substrate, as told by Ibu Ratna, there could be other mediums through which the Cordyceps brain infection could spread.
The officer told Ibu Ratna that the infected individuals turned violent and attacked others around them. The people who were bitten by the infected started showing symptoms of the fungal infection in a few hours, and, unable to find a cure, the authorities were forced to execute them. Ibu Ratna was told that there were fourteen workers who were missing and were believed to be infected. The mycologist shivered in fear as she knew that there was no cure or vaccine that could prevent the fungus from spreading. In an extremely harrowing and nerve-wracking moment, Ibu Ratna told the officer to bomb the entire area, as it was the only way to contain the outbreak. And that is what the governments of various nations would have done when the CBI crossed borders and started affecting people.
Through the proceedings of the second episode, we realize the importance that Ellie holds in the scheme of things. The experts had given up on the cause as they knew that science didn’t have any answers, but somehow there was a girl who was immune to the fungal infection. There was something within her that was preventing the parasitic Cordyceps from thriving. With Tess getting infected and dying at the end of the second episode, Joel is vested with a huge responsibility, and the lives of each and every individual depends on him. In the upcoming episodes, we will get to know if Joel is able to accomplish his mission and save humanity and, when the time comes, whether he is able to make the tough call.