Contagion (2011): When Fiction Becomes Reality


Have you ever had that vague feeling that a certain sequence of events or situations is going to happen in the future? That sort of unclear intuition of prediction is known as a prognostication.

One sobering and undeniable example of a prognostication that became a reality is the plot of the pandemic-based blockbuster movie Contagion, released in 2011, in relation to the COVID19 pandemic, which hit the world in late 2019. The movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, and starred Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law, among others.

The movie starts with Beth Emholf, a middle-aged woman who has just returned home in Minnesota, USA, from a business trip to Hong Kong, feeling sick and dizzy. She thinks that is normal due to jet lag. The next day, however, she experiences severe seizures, and is rushed by her husband Mitch to the hospital, where her heart soon stops and she dies. The doctors suggest she might have died due to meningitis or encephalitis of an unknown origin. Mitch returns home to find out that his step son has also died after experiencing the same symptoms as his mother.

After several similar cases appear in London, Japan, and China, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collaborate and work in parallel to face the escalating situation. Beth's body undergoes autopsy and samples of her brain tissue are collected. Finally, the cause of the malicious highly spreading disease is revealed: a novel virus namedMEV1.

It was challenging to know that the virus includes both bat and pig sequences in its structure. Unfortunately, it could attach to receptors in human cells located in the respiratory tract and the central nervous system super easily, causing severe respiratory illness and encephalitis.

On another level, epidemiologists track Beth's path, and are able to identify new cases and clusters. To be able to control the spread, their target has been to find “ground zero”, or where the outbreak first started and the “index patient”, or the first infected person. As the number of infected cases skyrockets and the death toll rises, vaccine synthesizing trials in monkeys are still going, with no promising results. Finally, a heroic doctor decides to try the live attenuated version of the vaccine on herself, and luckily the trial was successful. The vaccine gets approved and pharmaceutical companies start the manufacturing process.

Regarding scientific accuracy, the screenwriter and the director did a great job introducing and telling the story, especially the last scenes showing how the virus evolved from bats to pigs, and how Beth-the index patient-catches it in Hong Kong.

Although the MEV1 pandemic is totally fictional, it is mind-blowing how it resembles the COVID-19 pandemic in numerous ways. First, both viruses are zoonotic in origin, bat borne. Second, both are highly contagious diseases that could spread through contact transmission-like holding door knobs, elevator buttons, etc.-and then touching your face. Third, both involve the same protocols in facing the crisis, including isolation and quarantine. Fourth, both highlight how crucial and courageous is the medical staff role in handling the ordeal. Fifth, both show how limited hospital beds availability could be in relation to a rapidly growing number of patients, and highlight the need to support medical facilities. Last but not least, both showed the physiological effects and the negative feelings people suffered during lockdown.

Generally speaking, movies have a huge impact on our lives, whether we notice it or not. It is a mutual relationship; screenplays might take a real story and show it in a movie, while we as watchers might subconsciously mimic a response in a movie if we face a similar situation in real life. Even though Contagion was produced eight years before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, its prognostication did not fail.


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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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