Why Contagion is still the most realistic virus film out there

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

Those who know me will know that aside from my ridiculous obsession with all things film, I’m also very into viruses… not in a funny way, obviously. I’m fascinated by them and have been itching to do a listicle ‘best of’ one day soon. But until then, here is why Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is by far the best and most realistic virus movie to come out of Hollywood.

With the media circus around the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus, recently named COVID-19, it’s no surprise that the 2011 film is trending on streaming services internationally. But what makes this film so much scarier and more timely than past viral blockbusters like Outbreak or the gritty 28 Days Later? Like a lot of Soderbergh films, Contagion was meticulously researched, down to the last microbe. Laurie Garrett, a consultant on the film who wrote the book ‘The Coming Plague,’ stated that the film is ‘part fantasy, part reality and totally possible.’

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Gwenyth Paltrow in ‘Contagion’ (Source: Cinemablend)

Written by Scott Z. Burns, the fictional virus MEV-1 (Meningoencephalitis Virus One) in the film is an RNA virus which combines common influenza with the Nipah virus, after the wrong bat meets up the wrong pig in China. Two very real viruses that still make very real problems worldwide today, but neither of which are capable of bonding and forming a super bug in reality – it would be impossible.

However, it’s the way in which this virus is spread that makes it particularly terrifying and realistic from an epidemiological point of view. Spread mainly through respiratory droplets, like the common cold, flu or even COVID-19, MEV-1 seemingly pops up out of nowhere through Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff after a business trip to China. After it abruptly dispatches the Goddess of Goop, it makes its way around the world and kills over 26 million people by Day 29. An exaggeration? Maybe a bit when compared to novel corona, but remember that past outbreaks of viruses like measles and flu killed billions.

The film was also inspired by real-life people. Kate Winslet’s character Dr. Erin Mears is actually modelled on the career of Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases and is based on her experience tracking the outbreak of SARS, also a coronavirus. Winslet even consulted Schuchat during filming to better understand her character.

Winslet’s Mears also brings up the R0 factor of estimating the reproductive rate of the virus during the film – a commonly used method among epidemiologists. For example, influenza has an R0 of around 2-3, meaning that every carrier can potentially infect 2-3 more people. The worst by far is measles with an R0 of 12-18, whereas COVID-19 is currently sitting at around 2.3.

Contagion also touches on the difficulties with media control through Jude Law’s journalist Alan Krumwiede who cleverly uses the virus to profit from his sensationalist blog, and promote the use of an over-the-counter drug as a supposed cure for the virus, much like today’s anti-vaxxer movement advocating for alternative medicine instead of vaccinations.

One of the most accurate and shocking truths portrayed in Contagion however, is the spread of viruses through deforestation and development. Majority of viruses spill over to humans when their animal hosts have their habitats destroyed. This is exactly what happened with the Nipah virus in the ’90s. Bats flew out of the jungle in India and brought the virus to densely populated areas, not because they wanted to, but because we destroyed their habitat.

But remember, novel corona COVID-19 is not MEV-1. The new virus has infected over 80 000 people with 2700 deaths and is now spreading across Europe. The virus is not as lethal as its sister respiratory viruses SARS and MERS, but still requires caution. Wash your hands and if you feel sick, please see a doctor.

For updates on global statistics, check out the Johns Hopkins CSSE map and for more information on the virus and how to keep safe, check out the WHO (World Health Organisation).

Contagion is now available to stream and watch on Apple TV and iTunes.

Feature photo: CNN

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