- Purav Menon
How Well Did Contagion Predict The Response To A Modern Pandemic?
Contagion is a 2011 thriller film. Directed by veteran filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, the film describes the outbreak and spread of a new virus, titled MEV-1, detailing the chaos and suffering the virus brings to various people. It stars a wide ensemble cast of Hollywood actors, many of which are Academy Award-winners and nominees.
The film deals with a great many implications of a deadly pandemic; It documents the efforts of worldwide health organisations in battling the virus, while also shining a light on the social effects that it has on the globe, e.g. mass hysteria, conspiracy theories and fake news, as well as the varying levels of effect a virus has on both developing and developed countries.
Soderberg, along with the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, inspired by recent outbreaks such as the 2002-04 SARS outbreak, and the 2009 swine flu pandemic, consulted with World Health Organisation representatives and experts to portray the virus as accurately and effectively as possible.
Contagion, when it was released in 2011, was lauded by critics and audiences. It was also praised by the scientific community for being generally scientifically accurate.
In 2021, amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent pandemic, Contagion began to receive renewed interest by audiences, based on the similarities over the events of the film and real-life events. The global pandemic has seen instances of rapid spreading, social distancing, mass hysteria and conspiracy theories, all of which were also shown extensively in the film.
Some have said that the film should not be taken too seriously, as it was produced for the sole purpose of entertainment and revenue. However, there is an argument that, had we taken the plot of Contagion as an accurate predictor, we may have been better prepared for dealing with a modern-day pandemic.
I will be analysing the accuracy of Contagion and its ability to predict current events, as well as comparing the similarities and differences between the film and the modern world.
Soderbergh desired to make the film as accurate as possible to convey a true sense of fear and realism of the situation to his audience. He wanted to avoid the type of outlandish threats such as zombies or aliens that often characterise Hollywood. To accurately portray a fictional virus, he, along with the film’s screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, consulted with the CDC and medical professionals such as Larry Brilliant (known for playing a key part in eradicating smallpox) and W. Ian Lipkin, a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University who was on the frontline of the 2003 SARS pandemic. Lipkin even said of the film that it was not simply intended to be pure entertainment; they wanted the plot of the film to be a warning of the future to audiences.
Ways in which the film is a useful predictor
The film contains a great many similarities between its events and its real-life quasi counterpart.
In terms of the scientific origins of the fictional MEV-1 virus, it begins in Hong Kong; a bat community disrupted by deforestation leads to it infecting a banana plant, which is eaten by a farm pig, thus transmitting the virus to the pig. The pig is then transported to a Hong Kong casino where it is killed and prepared by a chef, who passes the virus onto the index patient, Beth Emhoff, due to a lack of hygiene (i.e. he wipes his hands on his apron rather than washing them).
This is strikingly similar to the likely origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are both respiratory viruses that may have originated from bats in east Asia. Early studies into the origin of the virus have concluded that it was possibly transferred from animals to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets with live animals were already criticised by many; a small proportion of these wet markets deal with exotic meats (such as bats) and are generally known for a lack of hygiene, which can result in diseases spreading from animal to animal and subsequently to humans.
Both MEV-1 and COVID-19 contain several mutual symptoms. Victims of both exhibit flu-like symptoms, which include fever, a high temperature, sweating, light-headedness, headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and diarrhoea. The film shows many of the victims of MEV-1 suffering from these symptoms before dying, either of primary or secondary consequences of the virus (e.g. a man in Hong Kong dies from being dizzy and light-headed, and stumbling onto a road where he is subsequently hit by a truck).
MEV-1 is spread through physical contact, bodily fluids, and transmission through surfaces. In the film, Kate Winslet’s character correctly identifies transmission through surfaces as ‘fomites’, a topic that has been raised in numerous COVID-19 articles and studies.
A certain statistic that has been brought up in many viruses (and in the film) is the number known as the ‘R-nought’, or ‘R0’. This is the expected number of cases directly generated by one case of the virus, i.e. the number of people that one infected person will infect. In the film, the model of MEV-1 is based on an R-nought of 2, but this is later found to have increased to 4. As for COVID-19, numerous reports have different R-noughts; the World Health Organisation’s initial estimate was around 1.95 on average, but a more recent review found that it was actually above 3.95. The CDC’s official number, and the one most frequently cited based on its analysis of the virus’s spread and limit in Hubei, is 5.7, though the severity of the virus depends on the specific region it is infecting.
The film’s predictions of the type of modern-day virus that would affect the world are extremely accurate and mirror many of the studies and research put into COVID-19.
While simulating the scientific intricacies of a fictional virus is still difficult, it was an easier task than predicting social responses/ The exact specifics of the virus he envisaged could use previous viruses as inspiration (the filmmakers used the Nipah virus as a starting point); however, given there had not been a worldwide serious modern pandemic in 2011, they had to predict the social ramifications by themselves.
The similarities between the population’s response to MEV-1 and the real-life reactions to COVID-19 are remarkable. Even though COVID-19 is a lot less dangerous and deadly than MEV-1, numerous similarities can be observed.
In Contagion, a major subplot of the film involves a blogger named Alan Krumwiede (portrayed by Jude Law), who is a conspiracy theorist. Initially, he is very scared of the virus, while his print journalist friend initially tries to downplay it. Then, starting his blog, Krumwiede fakes having the virus and recovering from it using a homoeopathic cure, forsythia. This results in major stampedes at pharmacies for people demanding forsythia. He also voices his suspicions that the virus may be a bioweapon.
His blog attains millions of views, and he becomes heralded as a ‘prophet’; he later exposes Dr Ellis Cheever of the CDC (played by Laurence Fishburne) for warning his fiancée to leave Chicago before the quarantine was declared. Krumwiede is later arrested for spreading false information, conspiracy and securities fraud.
This particular subplot was echoed in the early reaction to COVID-19. There have been multiple cases of fake cures and antidotes being promoted for coronavirus; most notably, the anti-malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. While these have not been scientifically proven to have any effect on COVID-19, multiple countries have approved them for experimental trials. However, many people have taken these ‘cures’ regardless; the President of the United States Donald Trump said he was taking it, asking “What have you got to lose?” This was contradictory to the advice of the head of the US COVID-19 task force, Dr Anthony Fauci. Many castigated Mr Trump’s comments for spreading misinformation, suggesting that encouraging people to take unapproved drugs can lead to unnecessary deaths, especially amongst the vulnerable.
In addition, Mr Trump was strongly criticised for his comments about disinfectants and sanitisers; he suggested at a press conference that people should look into injecting themselves with disinfectant, openly wondering if disinfectants could be used on humans "by injection" or as "almost a cleaning, sterilization of an area", stating that it would be "interesting to check". These comments resulted in a sharp increase in calls to health departments and poison control centres of people asking if they should inject themselves with disinfectant. Trump was chastised for these comments. Following them would be dangerous or perhaps even lethal.
Looking back on Contagion, it is striking these false cures would not be spread by a lone blogger, but the President of the United States.
In addition to the promotion of false cures, the film discusses the virus being used as a bioweapon. Early in the film, Dr Cheever of the CDC meets with Homeland officials to discuss concerns that MEV-1 might be a bioweapon; Krumwiede voices similar concerns.
At present, there are concerns voiced by many in the West that COVID-19 was a bioweapon engineered by the Chinese government. In 2018, U.S. Embassy officials visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and concluded that the safety of the centre was inadequate, stating "during interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
There were also studies done into a potential second SARS virus as early as 2015, by an international group of researchers led by Shi Zhengli (who later identified SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan in 2019). This was unveiled by a 2015 publication in Nature Medicine, which sparked theories when it resurfaced in 2020. Theories that the virus was created by the WIV and either accidentally or deliberately got out of the lab were corroborated by US officials, including Donald Trump himself, who claimed to have personally seen evidence that supported this.
However, there has been no confirmation that this was the case, and this theory is likely tinged with Sinophobia and racism against Asians as a result of the virus (something which is, interestingly, never touched upon in the film).
In terms of the general public’s reactions to the virus, both the film and real-life have shown cases of panic buying; however, due to the differences in severity of the two viruses, it is somewhat unfair to compare them. The film showed instances of stores being looted and ransacked, and stampedes occurring for supplies and antidotes. In real life, panic buying has been seen in cases where people were stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitiser as early as February, leading to sellers having to ration these items. This ties into the film’s themes of general mass hysteria, crowd psychology and collective behaviour as a result of global chaos.
Another plot point raised by the virus was when Dr Cheever of the CDC warned his fiancée about the impending lockdown in Chicago, causing an uproar. Similarly, it was alleged that in real life, American senators were briefed on the dangers of the virus and a potential impending stock market crash, leading some senators to sell their stocks; this led to global condemnation when it surfaced.
The world’s social response depicted in the film is extremely similar to how the world has reacted, especially with regards to mass hysteria, misinformation and alleged corruption.
Ways that the film is not a useful predictor
While there are a remarkable number of social and scientific similarities between MEV-1 and COVID-19, it is important to note some key differences in the events of the film and what has transpired in real life.
In terms of science, the virus is an entirely new strand, and has many extra symptoms (e.g. frothing at the mouth). The mortality rate is 20-25% for MEV-1, which is drastically higher than COVID-19. Additionally, the spread of MEV-1 occurred much quicker, affecting the majority of the world within the first couple weeks of its transfer to humans; by contrast, COVID-19, which originated on New Years’ Eve 2019, with its first non-China case arriving two weeks later.
Though there are some particular scientific aspects in which Contagion is not a useful predictor, these are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the vast number of elements it gets right.
Despite getting multiple things correct, there are many issues brought up by COVID-19 that the film completely does not address.
Socially, the filmmakers got one thing wrong – instead of having people overreact to the virus, many people have completely underreacted to the virus or ignored it completely. This can partially be attributed to the relative difference in the gravity of the two viruses, but there was no mention in Contagion of any deniers whatsoever.
Unfortunately, in real life, there have been instances of hundreds of thousands of people breaching COVID-19 lockdown, refusing to wear masks, and staging demonstrations against wearing masks; the most extreme end of the deniers had many conspiracy theorists trying to create links between the virus and newly installed 5G cell towers, with others alleging that it is a population control scheme by billionaire Bill Gates. This claim was supposedly ‘backed up’ by evidence that the virus did not (at the time) have many cases in Africa. It was debunked by numerous health professionals and news sources.
The film does not touch on many real-world issues that have been exacerbated by the virus. The film, despite having its virus originate in Hong Kong, does not mention racism and Sinophobia, which have been experienced in the real world; it does not mention an economic recession, which the world is currently going through, the worldwide poverty and famine which is affecting hundreds of millions, or the impact on the environment.
Though the film leaves out several social issues which are found in the real world today, it can be argued that a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the world has changed a large amount since 2010, e.g. the rise of social media and its importance; or, more simply, that the filmmakers simply did not have sufficient runtime to explore these issues.
Although Contagion was released nearly a decade ago, and the severity of its virus varies massively from ours, there are cues we can take in terms of its predictions.
There were many responses and aspects of the film that have been proven true as a result of our current situation – the film’s depictions of selfishness, mass hysteria and the importance of social media in global panic are all especially relevant.
Many people, such as professor of pathology Tracey McNamara, suggest that we should have fully taken the advice of the film and that it would have enabled us to be more prepared to deal with this virus. McNamara said, “if people are watching [Contagion] again, and if federal and state officials are watching it again, I hope they’re realizing that the movie was really about what can happen with a novel pandemic threat”.
These claims have some credibility; the creators of the film did, after all, base the events of the film on various real-life viruses, like SARS and swine flu, which means some of the lessons the film gives us can certainly be adhered to. The film correctly served as a warning about how the government should be prepared to properly deal with a pandemic, and that pandemics can easily spring up unnoticed and with little warning. Even without the film, taking a pandemic seriously is common sense, something Mr Trump did not do, having abolished the White House pandemic office sometime before Covid arose.
However, at the end of the day, Contagion is not a documentary, but a thriller film, and thus the events of the film are not driven by real life, but by a screenplay written by two people to create a plot. The viruses the film was based on were on nowhere near the same scale as Covid. Though the film has many eerily accurate similarities with the events at present, it is unwise to completely base an entire governmental response on a fictional film.
There is no way that we could have known that Contagion was a depiction of a somewhat realistic response to a modern pandemic before Covid became extremely serious – we only know that now, having witnessed the disease’s devastation on the world. The disease in the film is still quite different from Covid-19, and the film’s lack of various social issues that are raised by Covid shows that placing such strong emphasis on a work of fiction could backfire and lead to unintended consequences.
In conclusion, while we cannot base an entire response on a fictional film, 2011’s Contagion still certainly contains important lessons that we can take, especially when it comes to our responses, such as not overly panicking, being rational, and taking the virus seriously. And since the film has been finally proven to have been realistic, it is entirely possible that in the future, a more devastating pandemic than Covid-19 could arise, which may lead to people referring back to Contagion once more, this time with the benefit of hindsight.