Odessa, Texas – Nine years after its release, the 2011 thriller ‘Contagion’ hits a little too close to home as the world deals with a very real coronavirus pandemic.
The novel coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people in dozens of countries. Screenwriter Scott Burns foresaw a pandemic that had doctors and the World Health Organization scrambling for a way to stop its spread.
There’s a moment early in the movie when health officials lay out what’s known about the film’s villain, a novel virus. The fictional virus called ‘MEV-1’ is sweeping the globe and leaving dead bodies in its path.
Set in a drab government office as a backdrop, a health investigator with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), played by Kate Winslet, studies the limited information gathered. The virus appears to spread through coughing, sneezing, and contact on surfaces. The virus would be distributed when people touched their faces.
To stop the spread of the pathogen, officials needed to determine its contagiousness, whether people without symptoms can infect others and who exactly was susceptible. By the end of the film, chaos reigns and the death toll reaches 26 million.
The fictional virus originates from a bat, then jumps to a pig and then a person, which reflects the fact that 75 per cent of new diseases in people come from animals, according to the CDC. Those diseases include HIV, Ebola, SARS and now, Covid-19.
In the film, knocking down trees in China displaces the bat population and triggers the emergence of the virus. The virus’ rapid spread, travels from Hong Kong, China to Chicago, Illinois to Minneapolis, Minnesota, revealing the way increasing global travel can quickly turn diseases into pandemics.
Similarities between the movie and current pandemic are eerie but with good reason. Burns conducted months of in-depth research into the science of pandemics. He then recruited several well-established epidemiologists to develop a realistic plot, edit the script and train the actors who would portray health officials, doctors and scientists.
“When I started talking to experts, they all said, ‘It’s not a matter of if there will be another pandemic, it’s a matter of when’”, Burns said at the premiere for the film’s release. “There’s nothing uncanny to me about doing research.” Amid a growing public health crisis, the movie’s near-documentary precision has also become a source of alarm for some.
Some moviegoers believe the film’s fictional portrayal of a high death toll are signs of what is to come, and suggest that officials are hiding information from the public. In the vacuum left by the absence of knowledge about this new virus, fear and misinformation have flourished.
In late January of this year, the 2011 thriller became among the most popular films on streaming services. The movie also stars Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. In a recent selfie on Instagram, a mask-wearing Paltrow posted, “I’ve already been in this movie! Stay safe. Don’t shake hands. Wash hands frequently.”