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Diagnosing the movie 'Contagion'

Medical experts do a checkup of the thriller's premise of a pandemic. The scary part? They find it mostly gets it right.

September 19, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Alice Huang of Caltech; Dr. Peter Katona, an infectious disease expert at UCLA, center; and Dr. Arthur Kellermann, an emergency medicine physician, discuss "Contagion" after a screening.
Alice Huang of Caltech; Dr. Peter Katona, an infectious disease expert… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

The hit movie "Contagion" depicts a nightmare scenario: a bat virus jumps to pigs and then to humans, infecting them with abandon since they have no immunity to the novel bug. The virus circles the globe in a matter of days, causing coughs, fevers and seizures as scientists from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scramble to identify the pathogen and develop a vaccine.

Before they do, millions are infected and about a quarter of them die. Those who are not sickened hunker down at home or panic in the streets, scrounging for food and supplies until the outbreak can be contained.

Could such a calamity really occur? To find out, we invited three experts to watch the film with us at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks. Our panel included Alice Huang, a virologist at Caltech; Dr. Peter Katona, an infectious disease expert at UCLA who did a two-year stint in the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service; and Dr. Arthur Kellermann, an emergency medicine physician and director of Rand Health in Santa Monica.

The three sat down with us after the show to discuss the facts behind the fiction. The lively conversation, edited for space and clarity, appears below. Spoiler alert: Plot details will be revealed.

Let's start with the basics. Is any of this scientifically possible? The virus kills Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) in less than a week, but her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), never even gets sick.

Alice Huang: I found it a little hard to believe that the incubation period and the disease manifestation would be so quick. It was virtually within 24 hours. Several days would be more typical. But they wanted to make this virus a really scary one, and that did it. After that, everything that they presented seemed very realistic.

The fictional MEV-1 virus begins to spread when an infected bat drops a piece of banana that is eaten by pigs. Could that really happen?

AH: It could, yeah. This was based on the Nipah virus, which can travel from bat to pig to human. If the virus in the movie were that virulent, it wouldn't take many virus particles to spread.

Arthur Kellermann: They did a wonderful job of dramatizing interspecies transmission and recombination in an animal cooking vessel — which is often a pig — and then making the jump to humans. They made a complex biological concept understandable to the public.

The other thing they did beautifully was emphasize the potential for rapid virus spread in a globalized society. Beth Emhoff got sick in Hong Kong, and by the time she was on a plane home, people she had contact with were sparking outbreaks around the world — even before she was symptomatic.

Peter Katona: Assuming the vaccine would work right away was a little misleading. Vaccines take a bit of time to kick in — a few days or a week.

AK: Right. You've got the dose, you're immune to go out that night — it doesn't work that way.

PK: Transmission was a little bit of an issue for me too. They kind of implied there was respiratory transmission at the beginning, but the virus seemed to be passed through contact. Things don't live on glass and surfaces very long. I think they took a little bit of liberty with that.

AK: I had a science question for the two of you. When they told Mitch Emhoff he had natural immunity, I thought, "Oh, come on." Even before they had characterized the agent or understood the biology, they declared that he couldn't get the virus — that he was the 1 in a zillion that was naturally immune. It's a heck of a coincidence that he happened to be the husband of Patient Zero.

AH: They didn't make that very clear. Almost all viral diseases have what we call the iceberg effect. Many people get infected but they have no symptoms. Others get infected and they have some symptoms but not very serious ones. And then a smaller number get infected and it's very acute. Only a very few of those will die.

So you think Mitch Emhoff may have been an asymptomatic case?

PK: Yeah. In the movie they said that three-quarters of people get it and don't die. He was lucky — a run-of-the-mill survivor.

Did the symptoms seem plausible?

PK: A little rapid. I thought those seizures looked pretty good.

AK: The first seizure didn't, but the second one was spot on. Generally that stuff was well done. The cough, the headache, the encephalitis [swelling of the brain due to infection].

And the laboratory scenes?

AK: A little "CSI"-ish, but yeah.

AH: I just saw the new lab at the National Institutes of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. The one in the film was quite realistic.

The movie also took a close look at public health officials, such as CDC deputy director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne). Investigators like Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and others work to fight the disease. How accurately did the film depict their work?

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