Launched in 2011, nine years before the Covid-19 pandemic, the movie “Contagion” by Steven Soderbergh attempts to accurately portray the medical implications, scientific aspects, and social repercussions of a global pandemic.
In the movie “Contagion,” a fictional virus known as MEV-1 causes a severe disease that attacks the globe. To make this medical thriller come to life, the filmmakers did an outstanding job by consulting several knowledgeable medical experts:
- Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Columbia Mailman School’s Center for Infection and Immunity
- Lawrence Brilliant, a well-known epidemiologist
- Dr. Mark Smolinski, president of Ending Pandemics, a non-profit helping mitigate biological threats
- Dr. Natasha Griffith, a Microbiologist, Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences and Associate Director of Operations, High Containment Laboratories at Georgia State University
Of course, Contagion did coincide precisely with the Covid 19 pandemic. Below, let’s find out how the nightmare thriller of “Contagion” compares with the real-life coronavirus pandemic.
The Scientific and Medical aspects
The fictional virus initially appeared in China and traveled from animals to humans by exposure to infected animal products. Dr. W. Ian Lipkin told wired that “MEV-1 is a paramyxovirus that infects the lungs and the brain. It was modeled on the Nipah virus because we wanted something more interesting cinematically than an agent that causes only respiratory distress.”
The first case of Covid-19 happened in Wuhan, China. The culprit? A coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause disease in both animals and humans. The one that traversed the species barrier in Wuhan was unknown until 2019 and the scientific community named it severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
Most experts believe the new strain of coronavirus likely originated in bats or pangolins. Ultimately, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020: “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” as written by Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.
Symptoms and Transmission
Dr. Erin Mears, played by Kate Winslet, describes that the fictional MEV-1 spreads through fomites: inanimate objects that can carry and spread disease and infectious agents. For instance, an average person touches their face two to three times a day. Besides that, they also touch doorknobs, water fountains, elevator buttons, and each other. Hence, people get infected by touching surfaces touched by infected individuals.
Fictional MEV-1 and the real-life Covid-19 both spread through fomites. However, they infect people primarily through respiratory droplets produced when people cough, sneeze or talk. MEV-1 in Contagion attacks both the lungs and the brain, causing headaches and seizures. Its other symptoms are coughing and fever. However, severe Covid-19 primarily impacts the respiratory system, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
The fictional virus kills between 25% and 30% of the infected. It is far deadlier than the one responsible for Covid-19, which has a fatality rate of about 3%. Covid-19 is a novel virus, never before seen in the human population, so no one has immunity to it. Although in Contagion, the character Mitch Emhoff, played by Matt Damon, husband of index case Beth, is luckily immune.
The response teams employ some measures in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. If you watch or rewatch Contagion, you will be surprised again by how much it gets almost everything right, like a prediction. The vocabulary used by specialists, including terms like “social distancing,” “R0,” patient zero, mutations, mask usage, evidence of getting a vaccination, is accurate.
The character Aaron even says, “My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap, and then she douses everything in sanitizer after I leave, I mean. She’s overreacting, right?”
The movie “Contagion,” portrays social unrest resulting from a pandemic. For instance, banks, shopping centers, and grocery stores left ransacked, Doctors and nurses going on strike, travel bans enforced between states as a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Yet, surprisingly (or terrifyingly), in 2011’s Contagion, Soderberg and his team portrayed realistic social impacts. The film almost precisely shows what we have all encountered during 2020, especially the panic buying.
Right now, almost every part of the globe feels the health and economic impacts of Covid-19. Due to limited movement, fewer employment opportunities, and increased xenophobia, its aftermath has affected all segments of the population. This include people living in tough situations. Namely, poverty, older persons, refugees, migrants, persons with disabilities, youth, and indigenous peoples, or displaced persons.
Newfound Hope in a Vaccine
In the movie “Contagion,” a group of medical experts must race against time to stop the fictional virus that had claimed millions of lives. As the drama unfolds, government-funded health professionals tackle the crisis that arose in the private sector. Meanwhile, researchers successfully develop, test, and mass-produce a vaccine. Finally, Matt Damon’s character assures his daughter, “It’s gonna start getting normal again.”
Developing a vaccine is such a massive undertaking that it is necessarily a collaborative effort. Therefore by April 2020, a Covid 19 human vaccine trial began, followed by other potential vaccines, only a single year since the onset of the virus. So now the vaccines are here with us, some of which are Moderna (MRNA.O), Pfizer/BioNTech (PFE.N), Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ.N)
But still, we cannot say everything is normal. So our new normal is to keep social and physical distance, regularly handwash, wear a face mask, and practice mindfulness. By continuing to do all these, we reduce the chances of the virus mutating.
What is sad but true is that, by my personal experience, there are still those in my community who believe Covid 19 to be a sham. A seemingly unrealistic nine-year-old film (at the time of writing) ultimately showed how unprepared for a pandemic we are. Our perceptions on pandemics should not wait for a personal tragedy or a seriously devastating scene.