Nitpicking the movie 'Contagion'

Finally, a (mostly) realistic pandemic disaster movie

So I recently saw the movie Contagion. As far as disaster movies go, it was incredibly satisfying to watch. It’s not tsunamis or bad GCI supervolcanos (cough “2012” cough). The plot of the movie is driven along by a slowly-progressing, invisible-until-it’s-too-late pathogen. Even if you’re not a biologist, it’s clear from the first 10 minutes of the movie that the makers clearly did their homework.

Still, as a biologist, there were a few things I wanted to nitpick (you can tell I’m one of the most annoying people to watch “Jurrasic Park” with):

  • When Matt Damon (I’m forgetting his character’s name) doesn’t show symptoms and is discovered to be immune, that’s it. He’s just released back into the public. Aside from the usefulness of his plasma in treating non-immune patients, at no point does anyone bring up asymptomatic carriers. Since Typhoid Mary became famous more than 100 years ago, it seems like this would be a pretty well-known risk.
  • Laurence Fishbourne (I’m going to keep calling the characters by the actors names) and a bunch of others keep mentioing the virus having DNA. paramyxoviruses don’t work that way (RNA instead of DNA).
  • Within a few days of the first deaths, researchers already have a viral envelope protein structure model. Yes, genomic sequencing is fast, but X-ray-crystalography is still a bitch. Having talked to grad students that do this sort of work (sometimes for their entire thesis work), I’ve learned that this is a process that can take months or years. That’s not even getting into the co-crystals of the proteins, which can take even longer.
  • There’s a part where a bunch of the researchers are having trouble growing the virus because it’s “killing all the cells”, before Elliot Gould’s character (again, forgetting names of characters) successfully grows it in a lab with less than the recommended safety level. Yes, some viruses are tricky to grow, but if it’s killing the cells (and the cells aren’t dying due to something like dehydration or lack of CO2), then that usually means you’re doing it right.
  • Jennifer Ehle’s character (no longer apologizing for this) is part of this research team that makes a vaccine. She tests it out by injecting herself, and then immediately going to see her sick father. The majority of vaccines take at least two weeks to to be effective (i.e., that’s around when you’re producing enough antibodies against the disease to grant immunity)
  • Even if the world were devoting most of it’s biomedical research efforts towards a vaccine, 500 days is still a ridiculously optimiztic scenario.
  • When Jude Law’s character is on television, he says that with each person infecting 2 others, the number of infected will progress in the sequence 2, 4, 16, 256, 65,536 and onward. The problem is he got his math wrong. He’s describing geometric progression, whereas the real sequence would be 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and onward. Of course, perhaps this was intentional due to Jude’s character being a Glen-beck-esque conspiracy theorist that’s also hawking homeopathic remedies (and likely faked his own sickness).

But unlike with “Jurrasic Park”, I can actually suspend my disbelief for most of these. This movie even avoids some of the problems I have with zombie movies. So many zombie stories keep trying to up the ante with fast-moving zombies, zombies with various mutations, and zombies that are increasingly resistant to dismemberment. Ironically, if you take away the reanimating-the-dead part, the pandemic becomes much more terrifying. The situation becomes much scarier when violently retaliating against monsters is no longer an option.

What scares me the most is that the virus in this movie was closely based off of a real-life virus: The Nipah Virus. The movie’s outbreak most closely resembles the 1999 outbreak in Malaysia (including the part about spreading from bats to pigs to humans), but there have been repeated outbreaks popping up in other countries like India and Australia, too. While it’s the super-deadly viruses that get most of the attention (think something like Ebola or Marburg, with a 60-90% mortality rate), those ones are at a disadvantage. Because they’re scare, health organizations crack down on outbreaks super early. If a disease had a lower mortality (say 10-30% like the movie virus), and a longer incubation period (maybe a few days before symptoms even show), it would be much harder to contain than Ebola.

I’m hoping that this movie was enough to raise awareness about the risks of another pandemic, but I’m also worried that immediate reactions to crises when it’s too late will look better to the public than the relatively invisible preparaiton ahead of time.

Cited as:

  title   = "Nitpicking the movie 'Contagion'",
  author  = "McAteer, Matthew",
  journal = "",
  year    = "2012",
  url     = ""

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