Is H5G9 Based on an Actual Virus? What is The Sick in Sweet Tooth?

Image Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Developed by Jim Mickle and based on the namesake comic book series by Jeff Lemire, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is a Netflix post-apocalyptic fantasy drama series. It is set in a world where a cataclysmic event known as the Great Crumble has wiped out 98% of the human population. Caused by a deadly pandemic known as the Sick, the Great Crumble coincided with the emergence of hybrid human children born with animal traits. As it is still unknown whether the hybrids caused the pandemic or are the results of it, they incite widespread fear and loathing among the remaining humans, who know that despite the attempts to find a cure, their species is dying out.

As a result, the hybrids are hunted, sometimes for sport and other times for experiments. In the course of the series, we learn that the virus behind the Sick is called H5G9. SPOILERS AHEAD.

H5G9 is Not a Real Virus

Thankfully, no, H5G9 is not a real virus, though Lemire and Mickle and his team drew from real life to develop the narrative around the disease. In the show, when someone is afflicted with the Sick, the symptoms include the flu, fever, fatigue, red-rimmed eyes, and coughing. The most telling symptom is the rapid quivering of the little finger. Moreover, purple flowers often grow around the patients. Symptoms such as emaciation, rapid balding, and lesions have been observed in the later stage of the infection.

Image Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The virus was developed by scientists in Fort Smith Labs in Goss Grove, Colorado. Gus, the human-deer hybrid protagonist, was born in the same lab. It is revealed in season 2 the development of both the virus and Gus was accidental. What the scientists at Fort Smith were looking for was a way for humanity to age without any disease.

The virus is transmitted through physical contact with someone who is already infected. Even touching an infected body or surface can cause the disease. The virus is also airborne, spreading through the air or cough droplets. Once infected, a patient experiences a rapid progression of the disease, with death happening after the 3rd or 4th day.

The Netflix series premiered while the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and some of the real-world experiences of the series writers inevitably made their way into the narrative. In season 1, there are several conversations about masks, PPEs, and social distancing, and some of the scenes seem to replicate the harrowing images and videos taken on the streets and in the hospitals of certain countries. In an interview with Inverse, Mickle said that the show was about hope when he was asked whether his experience during the pandemic influenced his impressions about the themes of the story.

Reflecting on the fact that of all his books ‘Sweet Tooth’ was made during the pandemic, Lemire told Windsor Life that it was “bizarre,” adding, “When I did the book, originally, I wanted to do something pulpier, a bit more in the tradition of all the sci-fi books I loved while growing up.”

Citing the two-issue black and white comic series adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy and His Dog’ by Richard Corben as a prominent source of inspiration, the author stated, “In those stories, there is usually a nuclear winter or a pandemic: ‘The Stand’ or ‘Mad Max.’ You pick one of the two, and the pandemic opened up a lot of possibilities with this idea I had for these hybrid children and the biological elements of that.”

Origin of the Sick Explained

As mentioned above, the disease itself is called simply the Sick. In season 2, we get a better understanding of how the modern variation of the Sick came to be. Fort Smith was run by Gillian Washington, who took a special interest in Project Midnight Sun because its inception was associated with her great-grandfather, Dr. James Thacker of the United Kingdom.  In 1911, Thacker led an expedition to the Arctic after hearing about a village where people don’t contract any disease and live well beyond a hundred years. However, neither Thacker nor any of his crew members ever returned.

Image Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Like her great-grandfather and every member of her family line, Gillian had a muscular degenerative disorder. She sent a group of researchers to Alaska a year before the pandemic. What they found there was injected into a batch of unfertilized eggs. Only two of those grew viable cultures, with one becoming Genetic Unit System 1 or Gus, and the other the source of H5G9. Desperate for results, Gillian injected himself with what was inside the second egg and became the Patient Zero of the Sick.

Read More: Sweet Tooth Season 1 Recap and Ending, Explained