Story at a glance

  • The 2011 movie “Contagion” follows the worldwide pandemic of a virus from Asia that kills millions.
  • Compared to the Wuhan coronavirus, the virus in the movie is highly transmissible and highly deadly, which may be unrealistic.
  • The filmmakers do accurately portray some aspects of outbreaks but are wrong about others.

Gwyneth Paltrow dies young in the movie “Contagion” (2011) when she returns to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong and Macau. About two days after she starts showing symptoms, she’s foaming at the mouth and convulsing on the floor of her kitchen. She dies in the emergency room shortly after.

It’s a scary scene that could have come straight out of a nightmare. The movie has seen a spike in rentals since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. But how much of the movie is just that, a made-up hellish dream, and how much can happen, or is happening, with the new coronavirus in China?

What the movie got right

As someone who studied infectious diseases for her PhD, I found some scenes in the movie cringey and some scenes refreshingly scientifically accurate. Even if they were just skimming the surface of the science, it was obvious that they took care to get it right. The scenes in which Kate Winslet’s character discusses R0 (pronounced R nought) and fomites are some of them. R0 is the average number of new cases resulting from one case. Fomites are literally any object that can harbor a pathogen, like handrails, clothing and furniture. Fomites are how indirect transmission can happen between people compared to direct transmission through physical contact and body fluids.

The movie accurately portrays how diseases can get transmitted from person to person. In the beginning of the film and at a few other points later on, the viewer sees “disease danger” montages in which people are feeding each other, sneezing or coughing, touching the same objects or stumbling through public areas like markets and buses. Although the ominous music may be a little much, the moviemakers get it right that we do touch our faces thousands of times a day, and we often share spaces with many other people, increasing the chances that we exchange pathogens.

The filmmakers also capture the emotion of being in the center of an outbreak, especially in a scene with Matt Damon’s character and his daughter. Damon is isolated after being exposed to the virus, MEV-1, and his daughter talks to him from the other side of a glass window.

What they got wrong

In “Contagion,” the first few people to die were young-looking people; we find out later that Paltrow’s character was 34 years old, and the Asian man who was a waiter in the casino where Paltrow’s character got infected also looked young and may have been in his twenties. The age of people who die from new pathogens is usually higher because they may have other health issues that make them more vulnerable.

This might be unique to the virus in the movie because of how dangerous the virus is supposed to be. The rate at which the virus spreads and how deadly it was are exaggerated compared to outbreaks humans have experienced in history. The virus in the movie killed 26 million people in the first month. The 1918 influenza pandemic that is often mentioned in the film killed millions of people, some estimate around 50 million. But that pandemic took place over about one year.

It might be an oversimplification to say that a virus can’t be both highly transmissible and highly deadly, but in the movie it seems that this virus was at the extremes of both those variables. In the film, it seems that asymptomatic people can spread the virus but then are quickly dead after they start showing symptoms. Everything devolves very quickly. Pathogens that are very deadly to humans typically do not make it very far because they kill their victims too soon, like with Paltrow after a few days. Outbreaks like this will peter out after a few episodes of transmission from person to person after going too fast and too hard.

The movie also downplays how collaborative the effort to fight an outbreak would be. Experts are not likely to be working solo in the event of a major outbreak like this one, but that doesn’t make for good filmmaking. In addition, quarantines are short-term not long-term solutions. It’s somewhat unrealistic that governments impose highly restrictive quarantines for several months at a time. It’s also unlikely that a vaccine could be developed that quickly.

At the end of the movie, with ominous music in the background again, we see a bat grab some fruit and drop it to the pigs below. We see the pig get sold and prepared by the chef that holds hands with Paltrow’s character for a photo. And that is presumably how it all started. In real life, it would likely take several contacts between animals and humans before a virus becomes fully transmissible to humans. It’s also unlikely that there was enough virus on Paltrow’s character’s hands to spread and infect other people.

Comparison with the new coronavirus

In “Contagion,” Jude Law’s character, a blogger, spreads rumors about forsythia, an herbal treatment that he claims works to cure the virus. Though he seemed to recover from the virus after taking it, it’s unproven and it could have been a coincidence that he recovered on his own. People still scramble to buy it, breaking out into fights at pharmacies in the film.

Recently, there have been reports of rumors about a cure for the Wuhan coronavirus, currently being called 2019-nCoV. The World Health Organization (WHO) says there are no current cures for it, although many companies and groups are working on vaccines.

In the movie, the panic and fear increased exponentially because official bodies did not make announcements and provide information about the outbreak for several weeks. The virus was spreading rapidly and killing about 25 percent of cases. The movie doesn’t show anyone who gets symptoms recovering besides Law’s character. Any symptom becomes a death knell.

With the current 2019-nCoV outbreak, the WHO and other official entities are providing information and updates regularly. There are currently a total of more than 24,000 cases, 494 deaths, and more than 1,000 people have recovered. The 1918 influenza infected about 500 million people, with a death rate of about 10 percent. (UPDATE: As of Feb. 9, there were 37,558 confirmed cases and 812 deaths, according to the WHO Situation Reports.)

“Contagion” is a movie made for entertainment, and part of that is sparking emotion and fear that something like that could happen. The film’s tagline is “Nothing spreads like fear,” and that is the main point of the feature. In many ways, it’s an example of how everything could go terribly wrong if information is not openly shared, although we are experiencing too much information with 2019-nCoV. As one character says in the movie, “Some get a disease and live, some get sicker and die.” Hopefully, we’ll never see anything like MEV-1.

For up-to-date information, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Chia-Yi Hou has a PhD in infectious disease ecology. You can follow her on Twitter @chiayi_hou.

Published on Feb 05, 2020