A new deadly coronavirus spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan has the country gripped in terror. To cope with this sense of impending doom, netizens are rushing to study what happened when a different epidemic outbreak spread across the world… of Warcraft. 

Back in 2005, a coding error led to the Corrupted Blood incident that wreaked havoc in the massive multiplayer game World of Warcraft (WoW). It wound up infecting more than a million characters. Soon after, epidemiologists treated it as a classic case study of human behavior during an epidemic.

If Corrupted Blood killed your WoW character, you could respawn… but only to see yourself slowly dying again. (Picture: Blizzard/Twitter/Wowhead)

This incident has become a hot topic again as the Wuhan coronavirus has spread through China and beyond its borders, with hundreds of confirmed cases and multiple deaths.

With memories of the hundreds of deaths during China’s 2003 outbreak of Sars, another coronavirus, people have been turning to media that matches their mood. The mobile game Plague Inc. recently became the most-downloaded paid app in Apple’s Chinese iOS App Store, and Korean film The Flu was the most searched-for film on Douban.

Now a Weibo hashtag related to the World of Warcraft epidemic has become one of the most-searched terms, reaching nearly 60 million views. And one Weibo influencer spotted a similarity between their origins: The Wuhan coronavirus and Corrupted Blood both started in animals.

“On the fundamental level, Corrupted Blood started with a hunter’s pet, namely an animal, before it transmitted to a person,” the Weibo user wrote.

Corrupted Blood started with a band of high-level players who took down an end-game boss with the ability to cast a blood-draining spell. While the players made sure they were free of the spell’s effect after the battle, they allegedly forgot to treat one of the pets. That pet was then able to carry the pathogen out of the dungeon as a result of a programming oversight, culminating in a full-blown pandemic.

Corrupted Blood quickly spread from city to city. Game developer Blizzard tried to quarantine some areas of the game in response, but to no avail. After a week, Blizzard only managed to put the kibosh on the mayhem with hard resets and patches.

Epidemiologists later found players exhibited some interesting behavior during this time. Some people volunteered to help, but wound up falling sick. Others “went to work” as usual (making money by dealing weapons) and infected others. And some got themselves infected out of curiosity.

“Some people tried to uphold law and order, some tried their best to help, others maliciously disseminated the virus,” one Weibo user wrote, recalling the Corrupted Blood incident. “In a game with anonymity, good and evil appear even more real than in real life.”

Epidemiologists have also compared the Corrupted Blood incident to China’s outbreak of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Ran Balicer, Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman wrote several papers on the event, citing similarities to the previous coronavirus outbreak that also originated in animals.

Balicer pointed out that both the virtual and real epidemic faced failed attempts to quarantine infected people, and both cases demonstrated a high potential for rapid spread around the world. While the disease in WoW was spread by characters teleporting from city to city, Sars found its way to other countries by way of air travel.

“This plague bug in a video game really carries a lot of real-life meaning!” a Weibo influencer wrote.

Another Weibo user worried that the Corrupted Blood incident holds a more ominous lesson.

“This forced Blizzard to reset its server and get rid of the boss before it was solved, which is the equivalent of restarting the real world,” the user wrote. “Unfortunately, our reality cannot be reset.”