The film Contagion kills off 1 percent of everyone in the world — creating fear and panic as scientists try to find a cure for a fictional virus. It sounds like your basic Hollywood thriller, but that deadliness is not far-fetched, said two Seattle scientists at a recent discussion of the movie.
Tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria actually kill about 1 percent of South Africa's population each year, noted David Sherman, head of the tuberculosis program at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI).
"The movie should not move us to be scared. But it should move us to be concerned" said Ann Marie Kimball, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. Sherman said: "Some people will walk out of the theater scared, and I don't believe that is a bad thing." Sherman and Kimball discussed the movie with about 50 people at a program sponsored by SBRI (Seattle BioMed) and the Northwest Science Writers Association.
Contagion is about the eruption of a strange new virus so deadly that it kills the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow shortly after she returns from a trip (she dies in the first 10 minutes of the movie). The film follows several story threads — scientists dealing with the painstakingly slow process of isolating and understanding the virus in order to create a vaccine; ordinary people trying to deal with a justifiable fear of the unknown; numerous moral questions with no clear right or wrong answers; the allure of an alternative medicine cure that may or may not work; the strengths and weaknesses of a federal bureaucracy that is needed to fight the virus.
Kimball and Sherman gave the film high marks for accuracy, especially on the epidemiological search to find the virus' origin, the arguments on how fast it will likely spread, how to isolate and grow it so a cure could be found, plus the numerous needed bureaucratic functions needed to create and distribute the cure. "I loved the way (the filmmakers) dealt with the tension," Sherman said.
The film closely mimicked what happened during the 2002-3 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, from Hong Kong. The world ended up with 8,422 cases of SARS, with 916 of the victims dying.
"The risks are real,," Sherman said. "There's no way you can avoid it because you can't shut down borders to viruses."
Kimball zeroed in on the film's question of how to distribute a steady, but limited supply of vaccines to a public in which everyone is clamoring to be at the head of the line. Lotteries, guilt, and kidnappings emerged. "I think the first-in-line thing is a really important part of the movie," Kimball said. The ban on handshakes and concerns about everyday spittle mimicked what would happen in a real epidemic, both Sherman and Kimball said.
They had quibbles with Contagion, to be sure. Sherman said the movie's plot moved faster than it would have occurred in real life. "It was sped up dramatically. No one wants to sit through the tedium in the lab to get to that exciting piece of useful information," he said. And neither Kimball and Sherman could figure out where Jude Law — playing an irritating, independent gadfly journalist — got his weird-looking plastic biohazard suit, or even how that suit worked.
Sherman and Kimball noted that Seattle lived through its own version of Contagion in 1918. The Spanish influenza epidemic spread from Boston to Puget Sound in late 1918. The death toll was 21 million worldwide, about 700,000 in the United States and at least 1,600 in Seattle. Theaters and schools were closed. Religious and public gatherings were banned — a ban that was blatantly ignored when World War I's armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918, according to HistoryLink.org. Wearing gauze masks became the law, a practice that also quickly fell apart with Armistice Day. Then the Spanish flu disappeared in 1919. Public rebellion against the anti-flu measures plus fallout from a 1919 workers strike led to Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson resigning and moving to California.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!