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Contagion: A Fictional Version of the Real-Time COVID-19

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Syeda Laiba Tayyab
Syeda Laiba Tayyabhttps://scientiamag.org
Laiba is a Biochemist (MS) from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Being a movie enthusiast, she's been reviewing science-related movies and documentaries. She has been a part of our team since the founding days of Scientia.

How is a movie released ten years ago so relatable in the current scenario? Contagion, the 2011 thriller about the fictional MEV-1 pandemic, is unsurprisingly the piece that everyone is rewatching at the moment. It might be because all the new movies are delayed, but mostly because of how the story is jaw-droppingly similar to the conditions across the globe today. 

Contagion has gone viral again, its theme of rapid sweeping of a novel virus called MEV-1. The movie shows a rapid spread of the deadly virus that kills 26 million people worldwide. The virus spreads through coughing and sneezing, just like the Covid-19. Many other pandemic movies have recently been seen rising to the top again, but none has received as much renewed success as Contagion in these days. This documentary cum movie released in 2011 made by director Steven Soderbergh stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and many others. It is an anxiety-inducing biological disaster horror with terrifying scientific plausibility. 

Here I break down just how realistic Contagion is, as it is based on real-world scenarios, so we can learn the right lessons from this and hopefully avoid making the mistakes as done by the characters in the fictional. 

The film opens with a patient zero, in this case, Paltrow, as Beth Imhoff, on day two of the outbreak. In a brilliant move, the movie’s final sequence will show us day one, so with the opening sequence, the director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns are already giving a visual road map for how Contagion will be a unique epidemic-outbreak film than other less realistic movies in the genre.  

The film opens with a patient zero, in this case, Paltrow, as Beth Imhoff, on day two of the outbreak
The film opens with a patient zero, in this case, Paltrow, as Beth Imhoff, on day two of the outbreak

Imhoff, is shown in the beginning looking rough, sweating, coughing, and eating peanuts from the Airport bar (not a very good idea). In the sequence, Soderberg uses come clever camera work lingering on close-ups of inanimate objects, the peanuts, Beth’s card, and the touchscreen. Later in the movie, we would find out the scientific term for these i.e., “fomites”- shared surfaces where viral infections can spread from one person to another. These fomites are shark fin in the water, the invisible threat that the movie returns to, repeatedly. Real-life experts have compared the pandemic in this movie to the current Covid-19 situation and they grade the movie high for focusing on fomites. And in their review, they also point out that the turnaround time would need to be longer more than a few days for the virus to shed from Beth’s respiratory tract or saliva to be spread to anything she’s touching.

The fictional disease in Contagion is called MEV-1. Burns and Soderberg conceived it while researching the H1N1 Flu pandemic in 2009, the 2003 SARS outbreak, and many other similar diseases. They consulted with researchers like Larry Brilliant, known for his work in eradicating smallpox, Ian Lipkin, a WHO specialist, and author Laurie Garrett. These are the people who have dedicated their lives to studying real outbreak scenarios and conceiving hypothetical nightmare situations like one presented in this film. Beth dies two days later. MEV-1 moves super-fast, and that is the big part of the danger. Infected characters do not have much time after exposure to react or educate themselves, do self-quarantine, etc., before they accidentally pass it on to someone else. By comparison, Covid-19 seems to have a more extended incubation period reported as 14 days by WHO.

Another big difference appears to be the mortality rate. MEV has the mortality rate of between 20-30%, and by the end of the movie, it ends up killing twenty-six million people worldwide, which of course, is insanely high but not as high as the 50 million people who died in the 1918 Spanish Flu! The covid-19 mortality rate is still being determined, but as of March 3rd, it is mentioned to be 3.4% of reported cases. And the number will keep on fluctuating with time. 

The disaster response in Contagion is roughly accurate to the one these days. In the movie, WHO deploys an epidemiologist Dr. Orantes to Hong Kong to try to identify its source; meanwhile, the CDC deploys CIS officer, Dr. Mears, to the cluster region in Minneapolis and to try to contain it. While all this happens, more terms are thrown to help the audience understand this disease. Dr. Mears explains how one sick person is likely to infect others, R0 (reproductive rate of the virus). In the movie, this value is two and later jumps to four. The value for covid-19 is estimated at approximately 2.5, and again, that doesn’t make it deadlier; it is just a lot more infectious than the seasonal flu that comes every year. 

The movie also introduces the CDC scientist Dr. Hextall who breaks down the MEV in the form of colors. She explains that the sequence of the virus contains both bat and pig sequences. The final scene of the film reveals the near accidental day one event. It shows Beth’s mining company, which deforests a jungle and displaces some bats that eat bananas. A banana chunk drops in a pigpen, a pig eats a banana and ends up in the kitchen. And from one thing to the next, the chef touches pig’s mouth, doesn’t wash his hands, affects Beth, and Beth becomes a deadly carrier. And if you are having a hard time understanding the need for social distancing, you must get it now why it is being recommended around the world.

The disaster response in Contagion is roughly accurate to the one these days

The science in the movie is mostly accurate, which is something to be appreciated as most of the movies don’t really consider that. Another notable research by Burns is on ecotones. Humans invade remote areas and expose the food chain to microbes, and their immune systems aren’t biologically prepared. Covid-19 stems from a family of beta Coronaviruses that all have their origins in bats.

Returning to the story, Dr. Hextall knows that for developing a vaccine, it’ll take months and months to reach human trials and FDA approval. This pushed her to take an enormous risk, and she ends up testing a vaccine strain on herself. Luckily it worked! This particular moment is an homage to physician Barry Marshall who inoculated himself with Helicobacter pylori to prove it was the cause of gastric ulcers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his heroic contribution. 

The genius of Contagion is the way it tackles the crisis with a large team of people working in various fields. Disease outbreaks make a community of specialists work together while the rest of us are obliged to listen to them and to abstain from freaking out too much. 

The characters of this film are super smart; they make a lot of great heroic decisions. However, there are also occasional bad decisions, and the least heroic among them is Allen Crum Weedy, a social media influencer. He first breaks the footage of an early infected person and uses his following to spread conspiracy theories and pedals snake oil cures like the homeopathic treatment called Forsythia. Misinformation spread by people like Crum Weedy is the true Contagion of Contagion. Indeed, nothing spreads like fear. 

So, folks, these disease outbreaks are messy, and a bit scary. The looting of grocery stores and pharmacies in the movie may echo what we today are seeing at checkout lines. This is just the way we humans react when we’re afraid. But Contagion is a cautionary tale to take advice from sources beyond social media like CDC and WHO and other authorities because those people are more than just a bunch of nerds risking their lives to keep us safe and healthy. They are recommending 20 seconds hand washes, no face touching and social distancing that should be good enough for us. And if we don’t want to end up like those who suffered in the movie, we better listen and act now!

Note: For up to date current situations, kindly consult the CDC and WHO website. 

Also Read: Coronavirus; Global Economic & Social recession

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