Never seen the science-thriller Contagion?

Now would be a good time.

In light of the recent discovery of a new coronavirus spreading into the Human population in Wuhan, China, a virus with deadly implications at the moment, I thought we should revisit some entertainment which talked about this challenge as speculative fiction, acknowledging real consequences. Let’s not panic. Though there are many challenges, humanity has proven to be equal to them, for the moment. Let’s learn some science!

For those of us who are not familiar with coronaviruses, they are a family of viruses found in birds and mammals which can cause diarrhea in cows and pigs and upper respiratory disease in chickens. In humans, they can cross over and cause respiratory infections which can sometimes become lethal. Fortunately for us, their effects are usually mild, since there are no vaccines or anti-viral drugs that are effective on them.

They derive their name from the Latin term “corona”, which means crown or halo. When viewed under electron microscopes (see below), they have a fringe of protein projections which determine which hosts they can interact with. You saw the part where I said there was no cure for them. They are also known for their propensity for mutation. This, my friends, is why coronaviruses get the response from medical authorities that they do.

Photo Credit: Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with ID #4814.

The most famous coronavirus you have ever probably heard of was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related coronavirus) whose outbreak was worldwide in 2003, infected over 8000 people and killed over 800. It was characterized by a nasty respiratory infection and a persistent cough which took months to recover from.

The recent discovery of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China has created quite a stir. Though its current mortality is considered low, it has infected over 600 people and caused 18 confirmed deaths. It has also begun to spread to cities outside of China, with a confirmed sighting in Portland with the host currently under quarantine and doing well. The World Health Organization has held off on calling this a global health emergency and remains optimistic.

Informed with the science, now let’s get to the fiction: The science-drama Contagion came out in 2011 and I remember most people didn’t want to see it because it seemed more like a science fiction film than anything else. Besides, they had seen something just like it fifteen years before and they weren’t impressed. That movie was called Outbreak (1995) and it starred the charismatic Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr, in one of the few roles I actually liked him in.

If you can remember that far back (and these days who does) Outbreak was a movie about a deadly Ebola outbreak which came from a rain forest being clear cut and was spread by a monkey. Most people saw it and laughed, paying no more mind to it than any other speculative movie about disease. And in many ways, it was a bit over the top and definitively dramatic. There’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed it. I thought of it as a bit of mind candy, action adventure, complete with a helicopter chase scene and all that.

Outbreak (1995), Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman Warner Bros.

Contagion is not that movie. Contagion is much more real. Much less Hollywood and more apocalyptic, end of the world, and it could happen today kind of thing.

With one exception. It doesn’t go far enough. You see the horror of a worldwide pandemic which no one is prepared for. You watch as a disease enters a major airport, flies around the world, is spread through the air like the measles and anyone who gets it, dies (except for that occasionally immune guy, in this case played by Matt Damon).

The horror of watching the Centers for Disease Control and other world health organizations try to rally to contain this coronavirus is heartbreaking. Especially as the death toll rises. Where this movie excels is in demonstrating how helpless we would be in the face of a novel, fast-moving and incurable disease. How spending money on a military would not save you from a natural event like this one. The most terrifying line from the movie is when Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Ellis Cheever is asked if this disease could have been launched by an enemy country as a biological weapon. His response: “We don’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing it.”

The movie makes one fatal flaw and I am going to reveal it because, well the movie has been around since 2011, it should have been watched by responsible people a decade ago.

The movie shows the devastation, the loss of lives, the fear, the mass burials, the hopelessness as the disease spreads, all too well. What it didn’t do was showcase the epidemiology necessary to cure it – and it showed a scientist doing the unthinkable, experimenting on herself.

If the movie hadn’t taken that narrative shortcut, the loss of lives for the four to six months testing would have taken would have been worse than the Spanish Flu, with death tolls in the hundreds of millions. In the real world, such a step probably would have ended with a dead scientist and not closer to the cure.

Why You Should Watch It

Why should you watch this thoroughly, depressing movie? Because it is no longer a cautionary tale. Now, if we are very unfortunate, if this disease currently sweeping the globe is anywhere near as virulent, we could be watching the beginning of a new way of life for humanity. NPR is already showcasing articles about the new wave of pathogens sweeping the globe as humanity cuts down rain forests, heats up the permafrost and destroys habitats all over the planet.

And now here is a final example, because I have found many people are unaware of this threat and consider it an insignificant issue. After the end of World War I, soldiers returning home brought a deadly payload back to their home countries: H1N1, commonly called the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

The 1918 influenza pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920; colloquially known as Spanish flu) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus. It infected 500 million people around the world, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. It is estimated it may have killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people at the time.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.
By Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine – NCP 1603, CC BY 2.0,

There have been many theories as to why this particular version of H1N1 was so virulent. A recent analysis done in 2007, indicated the disease may not have been significantly more dangerous than any other flu strain, but it was the deplorable health conditions worldwide which made people extremely susceptible due to their weakened immune responses.

Whatever the cause, such a viral outbreak on a modern scale where 7.5 billion people living on Earth with the power to cover the planet in under 24 hours by airplane, would result in hundreds of millions of lives lost from infection alone. The catastrophic collapse of systems due to lost manpower would also be problematic on a global scale as hospitals, fire, police, and power systems as well as any of a dozen other infrastructure resources would be completely unavailable for some time.

Graphic from the Irish Sun, January 22, 2020

Diseases like the corona virus in Wuhan are everywhere. Now is the time to pay attention to how we do what we do, across the planet, before Nature reminds us just how dependent we are upon her good graces. While Contagion is a morbid and depressing film, it does its very best to impart the urgency necessary in a world where a disease once isolated could only affect a few thousand, can now spread around the world in twenty-four hours affecting millions, possibly billions on a bad day.

You don’t want healthcare for all? Okay. But know this: a weakened population is a vulnerable one. Just remember the Spanish Flu of 1918. If people are afraid to (or are unable to afford to) go to the doctor, how long before natural forces take advantage of that weakness?

Contagion stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow. You can still rent it all over the interwebs. Enjoy. Remember to wash your hands. You touch your face a few thousand times a day. God knows what’s on your hands.

Here’s a trailer for Contagion (2011).


A final note for real science…

If you’re like me, you love science and are endlessly interested in pandemics, epidemiology and the challenges of disease control. If so, you should watch the recent Netflix series, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. It is a six episode documentary series (docuseries). The series travels around the world discussing a host of different diseases, circumstances, and cultural responses to pandemics.

It introduces you to a team of investigators who study past pandemics to create blueprints for how diseases are transferred, their effects on how we live, and the challenges of controlling those pandemics in modern societies. Their goal is to discover, detect, respond, isolate and control emerging viral threats around the world. It is gripping and sobering television.

A quotation which stuck with me was in the very first episode by Doctor Dennis Carroll: “There is no single more dangerous influenza virus, circulating the planet today, than the avian flu in China right now. 60% of the people who are infected today, die.” That’s real talk.

‘Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak’ is currently running on Netflix. It’s damn good television and far scarier than Contagion because it’s real. Go wash your hands again. You know you want to. Recite your ABC’s. It should take that long to be sure you’re clean…

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