Contagion Is 10 Years Old… How Right Was It?
‘In order to get scared, all you have to do is to come in contact with a rumour, or the television, or the internet.’
Last year, as countries across the world – governments, experts, people and everyone/thing in-between – got to grips with lockdown, social distancing, masks and the gnawing anxiety of living through a pandemic, an early 2010s thriller reared its head in a smattering of articles, op-eds and social media posts.
Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh, presented a fictionalised, albeit meticulous account of the spread of a respiratory virus. A decade on, it wouldn’t be fair to say nobody could see its relevance coming – if anything, those fears were responsible for its inception altogether.
Starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle and Sanaa Lathan, among others, the film tracks a pandemic from patient zero to slow, but steady recovery on the other side.
Scott Z. Burns, who penned the screenplay, told The Irish Times how ‘every scientist who I spoke to when we were doing research on the film [said] it wasn’t a matter of if this was going to happen, it was a matter of when’.
He continued, ‘In the early aughts, my father and I would talk about the likelihood or the inevitability of a virus… I think the scary thing that we would most frequently talk about was avian flu and [how] at some point, it would jump into the human species.’
As per the movie’s final scenes, its fictional virus MEV-1 originated from a pig that ate a piece of banana dropped by an infected bat fleeing its natural habitat as it’s being destroyed. The pig is then killed and prepared by a chef in a Macau casino, who transmits it to Beth (Paltrow) via a handshake after he doesn’t wash his hands.
While common speculation places the epicentre of COVID-19 in a Wuhan ‘wet market’ in China, the World Health Organization says all theories on its origins are still ‘on the table’ after a recent classified US intelligence report was inconclusive.
‘Some [theories] are more likely than others based on the current analysis, but all of those hypotheses require further elucidation and further inquiry and we will go and look where all of those leads take the WHO,’ Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said in response to the laboratory leak theory.
MEV-1, a virus that spreads via respiratory droplets and fomites (found on surfaces like railings and door handles), has a range of symptoms: coughs; fever; headache; seizures; brain haemorrhage; and soon after, death.
While travelling through the same mechanisms, COVID-19 isn’t so severe, with the three main symptoms being a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, and/or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, as per the NHS. However, as outlined by the CDC, there are other indicators someone may have coronavirus, including shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, congestion, nausea or diarrhoea.
Kate Winslet’s character claims that ‘the average person touches their face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day, three to five times every waking minute’ – while it’s one of the most memorable lines, it’s also an exaggeration, with a 2014 study in the American Journal of Infection Control placing it somewhere around 23 times per hour. It’s still a lot, but not quite as frequent.
In addition to a vastly increased pace of transmission to death, the Contagion virus had a mortality rate of between 25-30%. With more than 217 million cases worldwide and 4.51 million deaths, COVID-19 has a mortality rate of just more than 2%.
Last year, we all became acquainted with our respective R-numbers, aka the rate of infection where we live. Contagion discusses this extensively, with MEV-1 reaching four. Fortunately, COVID-19 never saw such a high number, mostly floating above/below one in recent months.
As for the immediate impact on society, Contagion showed stores being looted, with riots breaking out and martial law being enforced to prevent any unauthorised travel between states. In reality, our biggest empty-shelved concern was far more mundane, with people loading up on toilet paper in the early days.
Travel between areas, whether it’s countries or local authorities, was also banned – but there weren’t any soldiers patrolling the streets, despite reports of military convoys on the bypass prior to lockdown (and the Wembley lasagne to feed everyone, of course).
What about immunity? It’s something anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown campaigners boast about, especially if they’ve yet to feel any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19, when they could just be asymptomatic. In Contagion, biological immunity is possible, as seen by Damon’s character. In real life, there’s no evidence to prove someone can be fully immune to the virus.
If there’s one thing it gets right, if not in specifics but generally, it’s the spread of misinformation. In the film, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) claims forsythia, a floral homeopathic tincture, is a cure for MEV-1, despite the lack of conclusive studies. As a result, millions rush to buy it, wiping out stores, likely contributing to the spread, and making him rich in the process. He’s later arrested for conspiracy and securities fraud.
During his time in power, Donald Trump declared chloroquine and its analogue hydroxychloroquine to be ‘game-changers’ without supporting evidence. A man from Phoenix died and his wife ended up in critical care after using the non-pharmaceutical version of the drug off the back of the former president’s statement, CNN reports.
Trump also suggested injecting bleach as a possible cure, as well as hitting ‘the body with a tremendous – whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful – light’. He also clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious diseases expert, on COVID-19 strategy amid political pressure from the far-right.
We’re now at a point where we have vaccinations available for COVID-19 from a range of medicinal providers, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca – these are the certifiable ways to curb the spread of COVID-19 outside the usual recommendations. ‘Right now, our best defence has been social distancing. No hand shaking, staying home when you’re sick, washing your hands frequently,’ Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) says in the movie, echoing the past year.
Contagion’s vaccine rollout was far less dispassionate in a way, based purely on birthdates rather than proceeding down the ladder of age, and it also came with the requirement of wristbands to show your vaccinated status. While negative test results are still required to travel certain places, vaccine passports haven’t been enforced yet as they’re often a subject of controversy.
CDC research scientist Dr. Ally Hextall (Ehle) manages to develop a vaccine for MEV-1 within a matter of months after inoculating herself with the final experimental dose. Usually, a vaccine can take anywhere between eight and 10 years to develop, if not longer, which is another common argument of anti-vaxxers: the possibility that it’s not safe.
The NHS states vaccines have ‘met strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness’ prior to approval, with the process simply being fast-tracked due to the grip of the virus across the world.
Dr. Ian Lipkin, head of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, also told The Irish Times, ‘In retrospect, there are only two things that that were considered inaccurate when it first came out… one of them was the number of times that you touch your face.’
The second was the speed of the vaccine. ‘It’s really very good, [but] the time to the vaccine, it’s never going be that short,’ Fauci told Lipkin, to which he replied, ‘It has to become that short.’
‘I could never in a million years have thought, regardless again of politics, that the leadership of the United States would move against the World Health Organisation… would turn a blind eye, would push fake cures, would suppress information, would fail to take a leadership position that did the things that needed to be done in a timely fashion to save a lot of lives,’ Burns said.
If he could rewrite the film today, Burns said, ‘I expected a compassionate, rapid, science-based, apolitical response from everybody in this country… there was nothing in my research that suggested a response as inadequate as the one that we’ve seen… I do think I would lean more heavily into the responsibility we have to each other, in this moment.’
Contagion is available to stream on Amazon Prime now.
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