Pandemics have long been fodder for Hollywood filmmakers, from 1957’s The Seventh Seal to the six-part Netflix documentary Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. As we live through a real pandemic with the outbreak of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, it’s easy to stream fictional accounts of outbreaks on Netflix and other services. But just how accurate are those pandemic movies that you’re binge-watching?
“The thing that these movies don’t quite get right is all the stuff in the laboratory that goes on with regard to developing a drug or a vaccine,” Peter Angeletti, Ph.D. and associate professor at the Nebraska Center for Virology, told Digital Trends. “They tend to just sort of fumble that part of it a little bit. They don’t go into detail about how that all works. But they certainly capture the whole fear factor with the yellow tape, trying to segregate populations, and all of that.”
What Outbreak and Contagion get right (and wrong)
Outbreak, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on Richard Preston’s bestseller The Hot Zone, is currently the 7th most popular movie streaming on Netflix. The 1995 flick about an Ebola-like pandemic features Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman doing their best to tamp down a prolific virus.
“In movies like Outbreak, we often see in the laboratories, there’s one person who has THE cure — it’s not very realistic,” said Angeletti. “There’s one person who says, ‘I’ve got it—here it is!’ It doesn’t really flesh out all the details. Because in reality, there are so many steps and there’s so many clinical approvals.”
Another popular pandemic flick, Contagion, is currently the 4th most popular rental on iTunes. The thriller starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet follows an all-star cast as it traces the impact of a highly contagious virus originating in China. The 2011 flick directed by Steven Soderbergh has many parallels with the current COVID-19 crisis.
“Here’s the thing about it: I teach viral evolution and viral oncology and I do work in Africa — I worked in Tanzania and Zambia,” said Angeletti. “I kind of know how these things go. We have known for years that sooner or later, something would happen. In my viral evolution class, I talk about influenza — we know that the 1918 flu killed between 50 million and 150 million people. We knew that it was only a matter of time before something else came along. When swine flu came through in 2009, we dodged another bullet — it wasn’t that bad. But finally, here’s something that’s terrible, and it’s here. So, it is shocking that reality has finally hit.”
“These social interactions that take place — and they’re just incidental interactions — that transfer virus around has a real sense of accuracy.”
Contagion created a taut narrative by showing the trail of infection — spoiler alert!—from a bat to a banana to a pig to a chef and eventually, to Gwyneth Paltrow’s character. When Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff returns to the U.S. from Hong Kong, the virus spreads quickly.
“These social interactions that take place — and they’re just incidental interactions — that transfer virus around has a real sense of accuracy to me,” said Angeletti. “It’s the part where we start getting into the development of the cure — in those scenes, there’s often no sense of the time that it takes.”
How pandemics play out in real life
Guido Vanham, M.D., Ph.D., and former head of virology at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, agrees. “I’m afraid that the movies, they are not completely realistic.”
Vanham recently went viral himself when his son posted the letter he wrote warning his family about the coronavirus in a series of tweets.
“We need to look at the situation in China, which seems to be under control,” Vanham told Digital Trends. “And what’s made the difference is that they are relatively rapidly contained and locked down. That is what we are doing now in Europe and also — gradually — in the United States. But my impression is that we are really late with our measures as compared with the Chinese. It really looks now as if the virus spreads also through people who have no symptoms whatsoever, and every infected person can infect three other people, which leads to an exponential growth of the epidemic.”
But the news is not all dire. “This epidemic WILL end,” Vanham declares. “It’s just a matter of several weeks to a few months, that is for sure. In the end, this virus is not that deadly. In the worst-case scenario, when the entire population would get infected, I think that 98% of the population would survive, so it’s not going to decimate us — even in the worst-case scenario. But this is not going to happen because of the measures that we have taken now.”
Vanham thinks that once we get past the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will have the makings of a Hollywood thriller. Much like the plot of Contagion, this future film could trace the movements of the wealthy jet-setters who went skiing earlier this year in European resorts.
“It’s not going to decimate us — even in the worst-case scenario.”
“People from all countries went skiing in northern Italy and southern Austria, and they came back with the virus,” Vanham explains. “The first dozens (in Europe) were all from people who went skiing. But they were only detected one to two weeks after their return, and during that time, they already had the opportunity to spread the virus to the population. That is what really happened — and you could make a movie of that! It’s fascinating. And now, it’s a generalized epidemic. It’s very fascinating to see how this could happen — and I guess there will be movies later on when everything is back to normal.”
In the meantime, Vanham suggests choosing a genre other than pandemic movies when in self-quarantine. “You’re in a different world other than the real world for a little while — the real world at this moment is quite frightening. Why put anxiety on top of the real anxiety? I don’t see the point.”
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