What the Infection Movie Can and Can’t Teach Us About Epidemics
Many of you have watched the 2011 film Contagion . I know this because when some now deleted Twitter thread about the novel coronavirus R 0 went (sorry) viral, people kept asking me if I saw a scene in the movie where the character Kate Winslet explains the term to a skeptical room. Government officials.
The film’s popularity has been spiked as 2019-nCoV began hitting headlines. And he’s doing a lot of things right in terms of epidemiology, but he’s also dramatizing things a little. Here’s a rundown of what’s real and what’s not.
Spoilers ahead; you had nine years to see this movie.
Realistic: Doctors and scientists are working quickly to localize outbreaks and find out what causes them.
Kate Winslet’s character is a sort of epidemic detective who was sent by the CDC to the city where the American branch of the outbreak begins. She introduced herself as an officer of the Epidemiological Intelligence Service , which is quite real.
She begins to track people who have been in contact with famous patients; this method, contact tracing , is a key tool for both understanding and containing outbreaks. In general, much of what happens in the film is based on real life, and there is a lot of correct and correct terminology used. Winslet’s character even uses the word quarantine correctly, which is rarely seen in mainstream media when she says:
We are isolating the sick and quarantining those we believe have been infected.
Semi-realistic: The virus has a combination of the properties of real viruses.
Like SARS , the virus has respiratory symptoms and is spread by airborne droplets and fomites. Like the Nipah virus , it causes brain edema and appears to have come from animals, including bats and pigs. New viruses are often the result of animal infections that mutate to infect humans.
During the film, health officials and others cite real-life outbreaks of past diseases and their various concerns. Avian influenza, SARS, H1N1 and 1970s swine flu are tested by name. All of this was considered or was considered a serious threat to their time.
Unrealistic: information doesn’t always come as quickly and easily
By the seventh day, scientists have not only sequenced the viral genome, but also created computer models showing how exactly the key protein of the virus interacts with its target in the human body. Soon, everyone knows exactly what they are dealing with, and work can begin on a vaccine.
In real life, it takes more time and more people to get such answers. It may also take a while to simply determine that we are studying a new disease. As the doctor tells Matt Damon’s character at the beginning of the film, people die from strange diseases all the time. Only when enough people start to get sick with the same symptoms – and with known contact between them – does it even become obvious that there is an outbreak.
Unrealistic: deadlines are accelerated
You can hardly blame the film for speeding things up and getting more dramatic, but much of MEV-1’s fearsome state has to do with how quickly it spreads and how quickly everyone is terrified.
The disease has an R 0 of 2, it turns out, and even when it catastrophically mutates R 0 only 4. Ebola and SARS were both in the same range , and you remember that although these diseases spread across national borders and had no vaccine or special treatment, they did not wipe out millions of people like the fictional virus in Contagion . Keeping people apart is quite effective, which includes measures such as isolation, closing schools and other places where people gather.
Vaccine development times have also been significantly accelerated. Probably they were lucky. The film does convey some of the difficulties of developing a vaccine. This requires complicated laboratory procedures (think of the scientist who figured out which cells to grow the virus in), as well as animal and human testing, which takes time and is frustrating when it seems like time is running out.
Realistic: People do stupid things when they’re scared.
People are in a panic. Globally, the film was able to show just a few of the bad decisions people can make when they’re scared, from a conspiracy theorist making money off useless supplements to riots where they fear they won’t be able to get food or medicine. Matt Damon’s character defends his daughter from the virus for most of the film, but later picks up a gun, and it feels like the biggest threat a small family faces are other people.
Public health officials draw a fine line between helping people understand the gravity of a new threat and forcing them to hoard supplies, lash out at neighbors, and pass unwanted laws (or try to cheat those laws). Just last week, the World Health Organization asked countries not to impose travel bans due to the new coronavirus, saying they are doing more harm than helping, and a few days later several countries have introduced bans and quarantines.
The infection is full of ethical dilemmas, many of which are deliberately unresolved, about what scientists, health officials, and ordinary people should do when they are surrounded by fear and trying to protect their loved ones. Watching a movie can inspire some interesting thought experiments about what you will be doing, but remember that it is not 100% accurate when it comes to virology or how epidemics are contained in the real world.