Any time there's a peak in the spread of a disease, some of us turn to movies about pandemics or zombies to pass some of our time. Maybe we want to watch our fears play out in a less scary place (outside of our own minds), or, perhaps we try to purposefully scare ourselves. But, in some cases, the movies we turn to may actually be educational.
Contagion is a movie that was released in 2011 with a star-studded cast, that follows as a fiercely contagious disease spreads across the world in a pandemic. While there are many things in the story that bend (or break) the truth, there are also some great moments where the film is educational. So, exactly how accurate is Contagion and can it teach us anything about real pandemics? Let's take a look at some of the different information included and how it measures up.
1. Ro - "For every person who gets sick, how many other people are they likely to infect?" This number, posed as a question by Kate Winslet's character in the movie, is what is called the "R naught," or "R-O." It is a measure of the reproductive rate of the virus, which can affect how quickly and easily it can spread. She gives a great run down of some of the factors that are at play in figuring out this number, including the incubation period, the contagious period, and the size of the susceptible population. When an Ro is below 1, it means an infection will die out. When it's above 1, an outbreak or pandemic can occur. However, human behavior can have a huge effect on this value. If people socially distance themselves during an outbreak and follow recommended guidelines to avoid infection and spreading of the disease, they can reduce the Ro.
2. The work of epidemiologists - In the movie, Kate Winslet works to try to trace the spread of the vaccine ("contact tracing"), to advise people who may have been exposed, and to work to try to figure out the risks that the disease poses at any given time. Epidemiologists are, in fact, sort of like disease detectives, and they may do some of these tasks, in addition to others; sounds like a pretty interesting biology-based career.
3. The timeline - Contagion tends to alter time the way that many movies may do, to make things more urgent or easier to show. First off, we've never experienced a virus that spread as quickly or easily as MEV-1 in the movie.
This was certainly to add a chilling, dramatic effect for viewers. Additionally, how quickly the epidemiologists were able to understand the structure and genome of the virus was pretty far-fetched; lots of these scientific developments take time. The way Gwyneth Paltrow's character was spreading the germs was also on the wrong timeline, at least partly. While she could have spread the germs on her hands to others right away, the virus needs to incubate and spread through her body over time before the germs could be passed through her breath, a sneeze, or a cough.
4. The vaccine - The vaccine development is also a bit unbelievable; while there have been cases in the past where doctors or researchers have exposed themselves (or others) to vaccines or biological organisms or agents to test the outcomes in a quicker fashion, this is a highly unsafe practice. The movie also makes it seem like the vaccine is only tested by the developer who injects it in her own body. But vaccines go through rigorous testing in many, many human subjects before they can be released to the rest of the world.
5. The jump - (Spoiler alert) At the end of the movie, the jump from non-human animal into humans is traced back to a tropical area where forest was bulldozed to clear land. A bat that had been driven out by this action ends up dropping part of a banana in the middle of a pig barn, which a pig eats. That pig is later eaten in a restaurant and the chef preparing it passes the MEV-1-causing microbes along. While this seems like a convenient "just-so" story, such a chain of events could be likely for spreading diseases normally carried by wild animals. Another common way a disease that jumps from animals to humans (called zoonotic diseases) could be introduced to humans is by humans eating wild animals.
6. Personal Protective Equipment - One last thing we will highlight. In the movie, you see a wide range of equipment that health staff and others use to protect themselves while working with patients or on the disease; some wear only a thin mask and goggles, while others have a full hazard suit on. There are often gaps or lacks in the equipment provided to health care staff during outbreaks. Any illness that can be airborne or airosolized (turned into a fine spray, such as in a sneeze) and infect others that way should inspire health care workers to wear more heavy-duty masks to protect from fine spray. However, in some outbreaks, and as we've see in the COVID-19 outbreak, that equipment isn't always as available as it should be.
All in all, Contagion could be viewed as an entertaining and somewhat educational movie to watch with students interested in the spread of disease. We also have a Contagion worksheet, to help you pay more attention to the information being offered as you or your students watch the movie. If your students need some basics on viruses in general and how our immune systems fight them off, make sure to also visit Viral Attack.
The most important take-away at this time may be that human behavior (e.g., going out when you are sick, not washing your hands enough or after handling certain items, not socially distancing yourself when it is recommended, not using safe practices when interacting with others, etc.) is often the difference between if the spread of a disease is an outbreak, or a pandemic.
For those wanting to learn more and follow along with Coronavirus developments, Ask A Biologist has found the following resources very helpful:
1. Educational video by Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell: The Coronavirus explained & what you should do
2. One of the most up-to-date Coronavirus case maps showing the numbers of confirmed cases across the globe (and split into counties within the US), from the University of Virginia.
3. For how to respond and how to act, visit the WHO's Coronavirus advice to the public.
4. For the most up-to-date testing and case numbers, visit the COVID Tracking Project.
The Contagion worksheet was created by Mark Friedman, a Los Angeles High School Physio-anatomy teacher and member of the International Society for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health (www.EvMed.org).
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Dr. Biology. (2020, March 19). How realistic is the movie Contagion?. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/questions/contagion-movie
Dr. Biology. "How realistic is the movie Contagion?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 19 March, 2020. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/questions/contagion-movie
Dr. Biology. "How realistic is the movie Contagion?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 19 Mar 2020. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 25 Sep 2020. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/questions/contagion-movie