The outbreak of a novel coronavirus has many convinced that we are headed for the scenario depicted in the movie “Contagion,” a 2011 thriller about a pandemic with a death toll in the millions.
“Had the whole family watch Contagion last night to prepare them for what is to come,” one user wrote on Twitter.
“Might rent ‘Contagion’ today to see what’s really going on in the world,” wrote another.
The 9-year-old flick has become one of the most popular rentals for video streaming services in 2020. According to its distributor, Warner Bros., the film was the 270th-most watched among its catalog titles in December. Since the start of the year, it has jumped up to No. 2.
But despite the movie’s resurgence, it is important to remember that “Contagion’s” fictional virus is not all that similar to the novel coronavirus that is now spreading around the world.
I first watched “Contagion” on a plane (not recommended) a few years after it was released. Since the coronavirus outbreak, I have watched the movie three more times to track the differences between the real disease, COVID-19, and the fictional virus, which was named MEV-1. I also spoke to scientists — some who worked on the movie and some who didn’t — to gather some additional insight.
Here’s how the two illnesses stack up. Spoiler: MEV-1 is way worse.
In the movie’s opening scene, Beth Emhoff, the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow, coughs after contracting the virus in Hong Kong. It is later revealed that the virus originated there.
The real disease circulating in 2020, known as COVID-19, is believed to have emerged in mainland China late last year. The epicenter of the current outbreak is Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Central China.
Less than 10 minutes into the movie, Paltrow’s character dies of encephalitis, swelling of the brain, following some very scary-looking seizures.
Though there are viruses that cause encephalitis, the novel coronavirus isn’t one of them. COVID-19 kills by attacking the lungs.
Emhoff gives the virus to her son when she greets him with a hug. Scientists determine MEV-1 is spread via respiratory droplets and fomites — objects like clothing or door handles that the virus can live on.
Here’s a place where the two viruses line up. Experts believe COVID-19 is also likely spread through coughing, sneezing and fomites. That is why public health officials are recommending that people frequently wash their hands and try not to touch their faces during this outbreak.
Throughout the movie, the camera lingers a few extra seconds on seemingly innocuous objects, including a bowl of bar nuts, a cash register and a pole in a subway car, until it becomes clear this is how the virus is spreading.
Since he first watched “Contagion” in 2011, New York University film professor Harry Winer said those images have become a cautionary tale.
“Every time I’m in the subway in New York I think about whether I want to hold the hand rail,” he said.
Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determine that the virus sickening people has never been seen before. It is a combination of a bat and pig virus, they say.
This virus is new, too, but its origins are still being investigated. Scientists have suggested links to bats and pangolins.
The MEV-1 virus was largely based on the Nipah virus, which jumped from bats to pigs to humans and emerged in Malaysia in the late 1990s, causing respiratory disease and encephalitis.
MEV-1 was also imbued with characteristics of a hantavirus and parainfluenza, said Dr. Larry Brilliant, one of the movie’s scientific consultants.
The fictional virus in “Contagion” kills between 25% and 30% of people who catch it.
Dr. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist who was a consultant on “Contagion,” said he thinks many milder cases of COVID-19 have not been counted, so the death rate is exaggerated.
When I spoke to Lipkin, he had recently returned from China where he was helping with the COVID-19 response. He said tests that identify how many people in the general population had the disease but were not diagnosed will give a more accurate death rate.
“When we complete that work we’re going to find out that the mortality rate is much lower than is currently described,” he said.
MEV-1’s mortality rate is more similar to MERS, another coronavirus that originated in 2012 and kills about a third of people who catch it.
About halfway through the movie, MEV-1 mutates and becomes more deadly and more contagious.
The novel coronavirus could mutate too. That could make it more dangerous, or less, experts say.
“We’re always at the mercy of the virus mutating,” said Dr. Mark Smolinski, an epidemiologist who also consulted on “Contagion.” “Those are things that over time could change the course of the epidemic.”
CDC officials in “Contagion” warn that one out of every 12 people on the planet will contract MEV-1. By the end of the movie, 26 million people have died of the virus, including at least 2.5 million in the U.S.
So far, 4,100 people worldwide have died of COVID-19, with at least 23 deaths in the U.S.
It is too early to know how many people may ultimately catch the virus, experts say.
In the movie, it takes a few months to create a vaccine.
Scientists say it would take at least a year to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. What happens in the movie is a fantasy.
“Nature gives itself slowly to the scientists. It’s sort of a slow, laborious process, and I don’t think it lends itself to that kind of vivid, clear story-telling,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a Philadelphia pediatrician who has written several books on the benefits of vaccines.
Despite the film’s artistic license, Offit is a fan. The movie concludes with everyone being inoculated against MEV-1, the threat subsiding and the world returning to normal.
“How often in movies are the vaccines the hero?” Offit said.