How close is coronavirus to films like Contagion and Outbreak? EW asks the experts
Two pandemic experts reveal how close we are to living out the plots of movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, and more.
Netflix docuseries Pandemic featured disease experts giving an inside look at how a deadly virus spreads, how to contain it, and what the aftermath looks like. Not even a month after the series' release, the world has a new deadly virus to deal with.
The CDC reports the "potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 [a.k.a. coronavirus] is very high, to the United States and globally." Some experts have predicted that 40 to 70 percent of people around the world could become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 in the coming year (though this does not mean it will present as a severe illness in all infected). Recent estimates from the World Health Organization put the global death rate at 3.4 percent, compared to the seasonal flu which kills just .1 percent of those infected.
Film and TV have long been mirrors of our everyday lives, but how much can we actually learn about a virus from Hollywood depictions of pandemics? We reached out to Pandemic's two experts — special pathogens expert Dr. Syra Madad and former USAID director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats Dr. Dennis Caroll — to find out. We gave Madad and Caroll a selection of clips from famous global virus movies to separate fact from fiction — and tell us how much we should actually be panicking.
Virus initial transfer (28 Days Later)
In 2002's 28 Days Later, a sick monkey is let loose in a lab, causing a rampant virus — transmitted through blood and saliva — to wipe out the population of London and turn victims into zombies.
Two ways major outbreaks have spread in the past are airborne contraction and via bodily fluid contact. Airborne viruses, Madad tells EW, spread rapidly, like what we're seeing now with the coronavirus. Diseases transmitted through bodily fluid contact tend to be less widespread but more deadly, she notes. "Two diseases come to mind," Madad says. "One is Ebola and then the coronavirus we are facing now. In 2014, over 28,000 people were infected with the Ebola virus disease. That's not a significant number versus what you see from the coronavirus disease, a respiratory virus. You have at least 80,000 documented confirmed cases in a matter of two months."
The coronavirus death toll has so far reached more than 3,000 worldwide; Ebola killed approximately 11,000. Coronavirus is expected to continue spreading, but the severity of this strain will likely be nothing compared to what we see with the disease in 28 Days Later (for example: zombies aren't real, people). There is, however, still a more long-term worry according to our experts. "We could have both this coronavirus and the seasonal influenza co-circulating at the same time as part of our annual winter season. And if that the case, it will be a real challenge and a real problem," Caroll says.
Detection (World War Z)
In this scene from 2013's World War Z, Mossad agent Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken) lectures ex-UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) about how the spread of a zombie pandemic could have been prevented if the 10th man theory — whenever 9 people agree about something, there needs to be one there to disagree in order for there to be alternatives — was followed.
The World Health Organization is responsible for alerting the general public of an imminent threat like coronavirus. They have their own version of the 10th man theory with the International Health Regulations advisory group that constantly is looking for an emerging threat. In the case of the coronavirus, the org had a sound system in place to alert governments that there is an event of international concern, according to Caroll. "It's a well organized, expert-based advisory role to constantly ensure that WHO can speak with sound scientific backing and scientific consensus," Caroll says.
The problem, then, is what governments actually do to take the proper precautions, a.k.a. having their own 10th man.
"The technical public health advice is usually very timely," Caroll says. "You can look around the world and see how quickly governments, including our own, have responded to that or not responded to it. I think the most recent press conference by our own president suggested we still aren't thinking that this is an event of great concern."
Early Containment (Contagion)
In 2011's Contagion, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) learns that a man who had contact with the now-deceased Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in transit. The mission: isolate the man at all costs.
This scenario is likely playing out at this very moment, Caroll says. (Caroll actually knows some advisors who helped shape the medical aspects in Contagion, which bolstered the movie's level of accuracy.) "There is a very elaborate exercise called 'contact tracing,' isolating the people that have been infected and then identifying, tracking, and monitoring people that may have been exposed to that individual," Caroll says.
There is one thing that the scene doesn't get quite right. "In this sequence, you would have probably tracked everyone that was on that bus," he says. "You would want to begin making sure that they were a part of your contact tracing."
In 1995's Outbreak, a hospital technician accidentally breaks a vial of infected blood, causing an airborne virus to spread rampantly. A quarantine of the city has been ordered, but not everyone is ready to follow the rules.
In Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus was first identified, a mass quarantine was ordered to prevent potentially infected people from spreading COVID-19. A large-scale quarantine has yet to take place in the United States, although some people traveling from China in the last two months have been asked to quarantine themselves as a precaution. Why isn't there a quarantine here? It might come down to democracy.
"In China, you've seen there were a few doctors that tried to give a warning that this is something serious. You had the law enforcement come to their homes and try to quiet them down and tell them 'We're going to find you, we're going to do this and that.' So, I think that tells you the type of strategy that [the Chinese] government tends to take," Madad says. "I think that the approach that our government is going to take will be very different."
The U.S. has been spooked in the past, like during the 2009 swine flu and the 1993 hantavirus outbreak in the Southwest, but no city-wide quarantine measures were ordered.
Rumors of a vaccine start swirling, leading to some unrest as to whether the government is involved in a conspiracy.
Experts are estimating that a true vaccine for COVID-19 won't be released until at least 12 to 18 months from now. Caroll agrees with this estimate, adding that any vaccine created would likely come about long after this wave of the virus ends. The creation of a new vaccine can be sped up, like every year with the seasonal flu — but only if there is time for preparation, which is currently not among our luxuries.
Carrol notes that creating a vaccine for this strain of coronavirus is particularly tricky because we aren't sure of the exact animal it came from. Some health officials have predicted that it originated from bats or a type of anteater, animals in the region that, Caroll says, have not been previously worked on in labs for a potential vaccine.
And as for the timing of it all, Caroll is quick to dispel any kind of conspiracy. "The development of the vaccine is very expensive, very time consuming, and it's not sitting in some warehouse," he says.
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