- The coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, has killed at least 2,800 people and infected more than 84,000 since December.
- In the two month since public-health officials reported the first coronavirus case, many people have streamed the 2011 movie “Contagion.”
- The film depicts a fictional pandemic that spreads from animals to people in Hong Kong, then kills tens of millions worldwide.
- Here’s how the pandemic from the movie differs from the coronavirus outbreak.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The 2011 film “Contagion” opens to the sound of a woman coughing.
The universal sound of sickness, the cough is heavy and full of mucous. It comes from Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who is patient zero in a pandemic that kills at least 26 million people worldwide in less than a month.
The fictional pandemic in “Contagion,” called MEV-1, is a portrayed as a hybrid of influenza and the deadly Nipah virus that emerged in Malaysia in the late 1990s.
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 currently one of the top thrillers on iTunes.
The spread of MEV-1 in the movie and the coronavirus epidemic differ in many ways. Importantly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) doesn’t consider the coronavirus a pandemic yet. Since December 31, the virus has killed at least 2,800 people and infected more than 84,000, mostly in China. It has spread to 56 other countries.
Still, there are some notable parallels between the scenario in “Contagion” and current events. For one, the movie’s MEV-1 virus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from animals to people. In the film, it spreads from a bat to a pig sold at an outdoor Chinese market, before hopping to Emhoff. According to experts, the new coronavirus is also zoonotic disease that started in bats. It likely jumped to people via an intermediary species.
Here are all the ways “Contagion” differs from reality.
The movie’s ending scene is revealed to be “day one” of the MEV-1 outbreak. It shows a logging company disturbing a bat, which flies out of the forest and into a pig farm, carrying a piece of banana.
The bat drops the fruit (presumably infected with the virus), and a piglet eats it. The pig is later sold to a market vendor, who then sells the butchered swine to a casino restaurant in Hong Kong. The chef prepares the pork before shaking hands with Emhoff, infecting her and kick-starting the pandemic.
This is akin to the way the Nipah virus spread to people in Malaysia and India.
The 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed 774 people, started in a similar manner. Chinese horseshoe bats passed the virus to civets. People then caught it from civets sold at a wet market.
In the case of the new coronavirus, the process was likely similar.
Genetic studies have all but confirmed that the coronavirus originated in bats. Experts aren’t sure which animal species served as the virus’ intermediary between bats and people, but pigs, civets, and pangolins are the most likely.
The opening scenes of “Contagion” depict day two of the virus’ spread. A man in Hong Kong, China is the first to die from the illness, but a man in Tokyo and a woman in London die, too.
The first person to die of the new coronavirus, a 61-year-old Wuhan resident, died 11 days after the first case was reported. The virus didn’t spread outside of China until January 13, two weeks into the outbreak.
Cases have since been documented in 56 countries beyond China.
By day 29 of the pandemic in the movie, 26 million people worldwide were dead. January 30 was day 29 of the coronavirus outbreak, and more than 210 people had died at that point.
In the last month, the coronavirus death toll has jumped to more than 2,800.
In “Contagion,” Emhoff’s husband, played by Matt Damon, survives the pandemic because he is immune to the fictional virus.
The concept of individual immunity doesn’t apply in the case of coronaviruses, Neil Ferguson, a disease outbreak scientist at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph.
“[With the] flu virus you become immune, but there are lots of different viruses circulating,” he said. “Coronaviruses don’t evolve in the same way as flu with lots of different strains, but equally our body doesn’t generate very good immunity.”
According to Chinese health authorities, even people who have gotten the new coronavirus and recovered can get it again in the future – the body does not necessarily become permanently immune after infection.
In the movie, the MEV-1 virus spreads via close contact and surfaces touched by infected patients.
Paltrow’s character infects the Tokyo man who died on day two after blowing on dice he holds in his hands at a casino. She also passes it to a person who cleans up a glass she’d used and another who picks up her phone.
In the case of coronaviruses, viral particles can’t survive for long on surfaces. According to the WHO, packages and letters from countries with high case totals are safe.
“There is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” the CDC said.
Instead, the coronavirus spreads via droplets passed when infected people cough or sneeze.
In “Contagion,” many infected patients experience seizures before dying. Coronavirus patients, by contrast, get fever, coughs, and pneumonialike symptoms.
MEV-1 affects everyone equally in the movie – it kills the Emhoffs’ son as quickly as it kills Beth.
But about 80% of people who died of the new virus in China were older than 60, and 75% had other medical issues, according to a recent report from China’s National Health Commission. A study of 17 patients who died from coronavirus complications reported that their median age was around 75. Many had health problems like high blood pressure and Parkinson’s disease.
Other studies have estimated the average ages of infected patients to be between 47 and 55. The largest coronavirus study to date, which examined 72,000 cases in China, revealed that more than 75% of infected patients were between 30 and 69.
An average person with the new coronavirus passes it to two to three others — a statistic called the virus’ R0 value.
On day six of the movie’s MEV-1 pandemic, doctors discuss what the virus’ R0 value might be.
Fictional officials at the CDC and WHO in the movie are able to identify Emhoff as patient zero of the MEV-1 pandemic. But patient zero of the coronavirus outbreak has yet to be identified.
On December 31, Chinese officials alerted the WHO to several cases of an unknown pneumonia-like virus in Wuhan. By the next day, the number of cases had jumped to 41, so it’s unclear which patient first contracted the virus.
No infected patients in “Contagion” recover from the disease. But so far, 36,688 people in at least 25 countries have recovered from the coronavirus.
According to Todd Ellerin, a doctor and contributing writer at Harvard Health Publishing, “many people recover within a few days” from the coronavirus.
A fictional blogger in the movie, played by Jude Law, spreads misinformation, claiming that the MEV-1 virus was manufactured by drug companies to turn a profit.
One homeland-security agent in the movie also wonders whether the virus is a terrorist weapon. Neither of those theories turn out to hold water.
Republican senator Tom Cotten has persistently resurfaced a debunked conspiracy theory that the coronavirus came from Chinese scientists at a secret Wuhan lab for biological warfare.
Scientists were quick to shut Cotten down.
“There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told The Washington Post on February 16.
The scenes in “Contagion” in which doctors identify similarities between the MEV-1 virus’ genetic code and DNA from bats and pigs are pretty realistic.
The genetic code of the new coronavirus has been mapped by scientists in multiple countries. It shares 80% of its genome with the coronavirus that caused SARS and also has overlaps with other coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins.
Chinese public-health experts worked to quickly share that genetic information with researchers around the globe.
Doctors in the movie say a mutated strain of the MEV-1 virus killed hundreds of thousands of people on the African continent.
So far, the new coronavirus has not mutated like that.
Coronaviruses, on the whole, are “somewhat less prone to mutation than flu,” Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, previously told Business Insider.
At least 50 million people in China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus originated, are under lockdown.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, said efforts to quarantine Chinese cities could help authorities control the virus’ spread.
In “Contagion,” the CDC attempts to quarantine the city of Chicago; the Emhoffs’ home town of Edina, Minnesota; the Minnesota-Wisconsin border; and other places in the US.
In “Contagion,” public-health officials trace the virus’ movement between infected people and those with whom they had close contact. This method, called contact tracing, is real and used by epidemiologists to trace outbreaks.
The WHO defines contact tracing as the identification and follow-up of people who may have come into contact with a person infected with a virus.
According to Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, health officials have used contact tracing to monitor potential coronavirus cases in the US.
The biggest inaccuracy in the movie “Contagion” is how quickly scientists are able to develop and produce a vaccine.
Researchers in “Contagion” are able to produce and distribute a small quantity of a vaccine in just 90 days.
But getting a vaccine to market has historically been an arduous, multiyear process. (The Ebola vaccine, for example, took 20 years to make.) Biotech company Moderna has rapidly developed a vaccine candidate and shipped it for clinical trials in people, but it will likely take another year to determine whether the vaccine is safe and effective.