The blockbuster film “Contagion” made a stir portraying a doomsday scenario where a virus comes close to wiping out humanity. How realistic was the movie? Michael Boyle, von Liebig chair in Biosciences, explains:
How likely were the events portrayed in the film “Contagion”?
The storywriters for the movie obviously did some research. The movie outbreak originating in Hong Kong is reminiscent of the SARS outbreak in 2002. The MEV-1 virus of the movie is carried by bats, as is the real-life Ebola virus.
Usually, these types of diseases begin in jungles where it is warm and humid and there are lots of creatures for infection. If it is in an underdeveloped area, it is far less likely there will be a public health warning in time to contain the disease. That scenario seems entirely likely, but contrast that scene with a modern urban area: much drier and sterile with relatively low biodiversity. Most developed nations now have excellent public health reporting and quarantine for a serious health issue would take place quickly.
The other (unlikely) thing is that the virus in the movie killed anyone who caught it within days after virtually no incubation period. There is such a thing as a disease being too lethal- it kills off all the immediate hosts before it can spread any further.
If something like this were to actually happen, what steps would governments and people take?
There would be an immediate public health follow-up. Health officials would investigate the sick individuals and attempt to trace the disease to its origin. There will be the usual panic, with the media feeding off misinformation and rumor, as accurately portrayed in the movie. A similar thing happened during the AIDS epidemic: a rumor started that scientists actually had a cure but were in league with the drug companies to keep producing antiretroviral drugs.
Have there been comparable pandemics in the past?
There were three influenza outbreaks in the 20th century, most deadly of which was the 1918 flu. It killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, Korean War and both world wars combined and a total of 50 million worldwide.
Is “pandemic” a somewhat loose term?
No, actually, it has a very specific definition: a pandemic occurs when there are infections of the same agent on multiple continents. This is a statement about its infection ability, not its lethality. There is a tendency to misperceive pandemics as “extremely deadly,” which is not always the case. For example, the swine flu was active on multiple continents, so it passed the test of a pandemic. But it was not very lethal; in fact the flu season that year had less deaths than usual. Contracting the swine flu prevented you from getting the regular flu, which was a deadlier virus.
-Joseph Aultman-Moore, 2012