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CNN’s Sanjay Gupta Weighs In on Theory of Cordyceps Fungi Infecting Humans

CNN’s medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta stirred up discussion on Tuesday morning regarding the potential for cordyceps fungi, as depicted in the popular video game and show The Last of Us, to infect humans. In this dystopian fiction, a parasitic fungal infection from a strain of cordyceps has decimated the human population, causing them to become “zombie-like” shells of their former selves.

While cordyceps fungi do have the ability to take over ants, Gupta reassured viewers on CNN that it is not a threat to humans due to our high body temperatures being too warm for the fungus to thrive in. However, Gupta noted that fungi are starting to adapt to warmer temperatures due to climate change.

Matthew Fisher, Ph.D., a professor of fungal disease epidemiology at the Imperial College School of Public Health, also concurs that “a human manipulating cordyceps is vanishingly unlikely,” as humans are not natural hosts for cordyceps fungi, unlike the ant species that they typically infect.

While there are at least 150,000 known species of fungi, and only about 200 of them infect humans, Gupta drew attention to the rise of deaths from known fungal infections that do affect humans, particularly among those who are immunocompromised.

According to a study released on National Library of Medicine, there are 150 million severe cases of fungal infections worldwide each year, leading to approximately 1.7 million deaths. While skin and nail fungal infections are common, those with underlying health problems such as cancer, asthma, HIV or AIDS, or organ transplant recipients often face more serious fungal infections.

In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 7,199 people died from a fungal infection. Aspergillosis was the fungal infection that sent the most people to the hospital, followed by non-invasive and invasive candidiasis (a yeast infection), and Pneumocystis pneumonia, according to the CDC’s data from hospitalizations in 2014.

The CDC is keeping an eye on certain fungal diseases such as candida auris, which the CDC has noted could pose a “serious global health threat” due to its multidrug-resistant properties and difficulties identifying it in a lab. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has identified 19 fungal pathogens that could pose a health threat globally in a recent report released in October 2022.