Day 6

Science or science fiction? What Contagion gets right — and wrong — about pandemics

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the 2011 movie Contagion has become popular once again. Maureen Taylor, a physician assistant in infectious diseases, rates the film for how closely it portrays a real pandemic.

'If you are panicked now, then you should probably give this movie a pass,' says Maureen Taylor

Matt Damon, left, and Gweneth Paltrow star as a couple struck by a fictional superbug in the 2011 movie Contagion. Streams and downloads of the movie skyrocketed in March 2020 as news of COVID-19 infections spread around the world. (Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube)
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A 2011 film about a disease that kills 26 million people around the world is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, seemingly in response to the growing real-life COVID-19 pandemic.

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderberg, weaves a yarn about a fictitious virus — dubbed MEV-1 — that fells most of the star-studded cast, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Matt Damon.

Maureen Taylor, a former CBC journalist and physician assistant in infectious diseases, isn't surprised at the film's newfound popularity, which originally hit theatres shortly after the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

"Naturally, people are looking to pop culture to see, 'Hey, what's been said about this before?'" she told Day 6.

According to the New York Times, Contagion has shot up Warner Bros.'s viewer rankings from 270 to the top of the list, behind only the Harry Potter films.

Taylor says Contagion gets a lot of things right about pandemics, thanks to extensive consultations with scientists during its production.

But it does sacrifice some details in the name of entertainment, thrills — and horror.

"If you are panicked now, then you should probably give this movie a pass. I mean — 26 million dead? Not good."

Here are some of the things Taylor says Contagion gets right, and one it gets very wrong, about real-life pandemics.

The good: animal origins, scientific terms

The virus in Contagion originated in bats, but it didn't become a threat until it spread from a bat to a pig, which in turn made it more easily transmitted to humans.

"And guess what? That happens all the time," she said.

Viruses that originate with one animal, spread to another "intermediary host" before reaching humans is known as a zoonotic disease. Taylor says this also includes SARS and avian influenza (or bird flu).

Maureen Taylor is a former CBC journalist. She's now a physician assistant in infectious diseases at Toronto's Michael Garron Hospital. (Justin Broadbent)

In one scene, Kate Winslet, who plays a researcher with the U.S. Epidemic Intelligence Service, explains several scientific terms to other officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"She's using terms that you're probably seeing in news stories about COVID 19-right now," said Taylor.

Those terms include the R-0, or the rate at which a virus will spread among human hosts, and fomites: inanimate objects and surfaces like doorknobs, clothing or human hair that can transfer a virus on physical contact.

Searching for patient zero

Taylor also commended Winslet's character for investigating the exact place and time a person was first infected with the virus.

In the film's case, a careless chef, his hands caked with pig's blood, shakes the hand of Gwyneth Paltrow's character, who is the first to suffer symptoms and die from the virus.

But the chef never showed any symptoms.

"We never see him get sick, and that's important, because the virus can only survive if some of its human hosts survive long enough to pass it on to other people," said Taylor.

Spreading like wildfire

In just a few days — and within Contagion's lean 106-minute running time — the virus has spread to all corners of the globe with alarming speed.

"You know you might wonder: is that science fiction? Can a virus actually move around the world and kill people so quickly? But actually it can, with air travel today. This can absolutely happen," Taylor said.

She cited one theory that a man with SARS may have spread the disease by coughing or vomiting near a hotel elevator or in his room in Hong Kong's Kowloon district, exposing it to other hotel patrons. 

One of those people returned home to Canada, planting the seeds of the outbreak in Toronto that killed 44 people.

"And it all happened within a matter of days," said Taylor.

Maureen Taylor, a physician assistant in infectious diseases, weighs in on how accurate she thinks the film Contagion is at representing pandemics like COVID-19. 5:45

Stoking public fears

Jude Law plays a freelance writer who hawks a fake cure to MEV-1 made of forsythia, and concocts a conspiracy theory that the pharmaceutical industry is withholding an already-completed vaccine, stoking the public's fears and hysteria.

"Lots of people are listening to him. And what happens is people start invading each other's homes looking for forsythia. ... Matt Damon can't even find food for his daughter," Taylor said.

According to Taylor, it's an extreme version of fears about a viral outbreak, the latest of which has so far resulted in grocery store aisles with customers clearing out shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

"I think we're going to see a little more panic in Canada over COVID-19 over the next few days. But I really hope, and I don't think, we will deteriorate to quite that level," she said.

The bad: a brain full of 'goop'

Not everything in Contagion passed Taylor's scientific smell test. The gruesome nature in which MEV-1 takes the life of Paltrow's character sticks out.

"She looks sick, but she hasn't even called her doctor to make an appointment yet. And all of a sudden she falls to the ground, she's foaming at the mouth, she's having seizures," she said.

At the character's autopsy, two pathologists open up her brain — and uncover a grisly sight.

"They stand back in horror, because apparently Paltrow's brain is full of goop — pun intended," said Taylor.

"There's lots of viruses that do lots of bad things to the brain — inflammation and stuff. But I don't think they turn your brain to goop."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Yamri Taddese.

To hear more from Maureen Taylor, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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