- As the spread of the novel coronavirus continues, public interest in disease outbreaks has risen – with “Contagion” now one of the most popular movies on iTunes.
- Brian Amman, a disease expert who is an ecologist for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed epidemic-themed movies and TV shows for Wired.
- Clips shown in the YouTube video came from the likes of “World War Z,” “House,” and “ET.” But it was “Contagion” that Amman said was the most accurate.
- At the same time, the 1995 movie “Outbreak” was deemed the least accurate: “In ‘Contagion,’ they really got it right. Here, they did not.”
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The disease expert Brian Amman, an ecologist for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke with Wired to review the accuracy of how movies and TV shows have portrayed disease outbreaks.
The clips Amman reviewed were taken from various fictional works, including zombie stories like “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead,” movies such as “ET” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and TV shows like “House.” But it was 2011’s “Contagion” that came out on top.
The film, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Matt Damon, and Kate Winslet, depicts a fictional pandemic that spreads from animals to people in Hong Kong and then kills tens of millions worldwide, as Business Insider’s Aylin Woodward reported.
It follows the characters as the CDC struggles to find a cure for the fictional epidemic called MEV-1, which is portrayed as a hybrid of influenza and the deadly Nipah virus that emerged in Malaysia in the late 1990s.
In one scene, a doctor uses computer graphics and technology to explain how the virus works.
“It is available,” Amman said of the technology shown in “Contagion.”
“This computer software is able to form sort of a three-dimensional image of the virus itself, and they can identify through sequencing which parts of the virus are the receptors where it binds to the human cell, which parts are coding for certain protein that cause illness or replication.”
He added the software was “very accurate in terms of being able to pinpoint certain areas of the genome that will have certain effects on the human or on the virus or even the cell that it’s infecting.”
‘It’s pure Hollywood fiction’
The movie or TV show that was the least accurate, according to Amman, was 1995’s “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Morgan Freeman.
The movie follows doctors from the US Army trying to find a cure for a virus spreading throughout a California town – a virus brought to America by an African monkey.
“This one has so many flaws,” Amman told Wired of “Outbreak.” “You see people shaking hands, and that doesn’t occur in an outbreak area. If there is some kind of a greeting, it’s usually elbow-to-elbow.”
In one scene, Amman pointed out a lack of attention to detail that would not happen in real life.
“You notice that she’s not wearing any eye protection, and the guy directly behind her is,” he said. “One of the little details that, if this were truly a field virus outbreak and this was an isolation ward, they would all have a face shield or eye protection.
“Some gloves, some others without gloves. It’s total chaos. It’s a mess. It’s pure Hollywood fiction.”
Amman also noticed that Dustin Hoffman’s character “should know better.”
“The guy pokes his head into the isolation ward, says ‘doctor,’ pulls the guy out, they walk down a clean hallway directly into a patient’s room,” Amman said.
“They just walked in with filthy PPE [personal protective equipment] and potentially contaminated everything in the hallway that they just walked down. That would never happen.”
He added: “With Ebola outbreaks, it would be an entire disinfection process before you even came out of that. You’d probably get sprayed down with some sort of a disinfectant, take all of the PPE off, possibly even shower depending on where they were.”
To illustrate the difference between the two movies, Amman compared their respective depictions of animals spreading disease.
After watching a scene in “Contagion” in which a chef is seen cooking with pig and then shaking Paltrow’s character’s hand without having washed his own, Amman said the film was “very accurate, especially the not hand-washing thing.”
At the same time, he said “Outbreak” was not nearly as accurate.
“‘Outbreak’ has a ton of problems,” he said.
After watching a scene in which a monkey is shot with a tranquilizer, he added: “I don’t know where to begin. What can I talk about? The fact that that’s a South American monkey that they caught in Africa?”
He added: “We wouldn’t use a live person as bait, let alone a child. We actually study reservoir ecology, know their habits, know their habitat, and know how to catch them.
“A monkey could technically bite someone and then have the virus in the saliva, but generally speaking they are so sick, they just kind of lay there and die.”
Amman summarized: “In ‘Contagion,’ they really got it right. Here, they did not.”
This is perhaps why at the end of January, because of the current coronavirus outbreak, Google searches for “Contagion” skyrocketed, as did the number of Twitter users mentioning the movie. “Contagion” is now one of the top thrillers on iTunes.
Still, Amman told Wired that while the idea of a pandemic could “really bring out the fear and the panic in people,” diseases were “not nearly as uncontrollable as Hollywood makes it seem.”
“Viruses that you’ve seen in these clips are basically Hollywood fiction, and the real-life viruses that are out there are hardly ever, if at all, as fast-acting as what you’ve just seen in these clips.”
Watch the full video below:
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