Contagion: The Encoded Message About COVID-19

Contagion (2011 Film) Poster

As the world continues its battle against the nouvelle COVID-19 and the effects of the pandemic, a movie seems to have been the closest comparison that people have found to depict humanity in such trying times—“Contagion”, a 2011 American thriller which in a very peculiar way seemed to have predicted the present pandemic, humanity’s reaction to it and possibly the future outcome… But the big question is, Why did it took humanity 9years to decipher the encoded message of Contagion about COVID-19?

As directed and written by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns, Contagion follows the spread of a virus transmitted when sick humans touch surfaces and leave virus behind that others can catch. The film follows the trajectory of the virus, the response of the people to it, civil unrest, fear, the race against time to get things back to normal and the eventual restoration of normalcy. 

One thing many have established so far is how similar the plot from Contagion resembles and depicts humanity’s conditions presently with the raving effect of COVID-19.

The movie was deep in every sense of the word, well thought of and prepared for like almost a real life occurrence if you may. The preparations for it had all areas necessary taken into account as there was consultation with representatives from the World Health Organization on the ins and outs of infectious diseases, and Kate Winslet’s working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to understand the lifestyle and character of an epidemiologist, like the real deal. 

Countless professionals were consulted, most especially medical experts like Dr. W. Ian Lipkin—the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Health, Lawrence “Larry” Brilliant, and Laurie Garrett whose expertise was sought because of the book she wrote in 1994 titled, “The Coming Plague”

So to see how perfectly “Contagion” predicted the current pandemic the world is in, some comparisons have been established on how real “Contagion” feels through COVID-19. So here we have: 

According to the movie in the final scenes it was discovered that the virus “MEV-1”originated from a pig that ate a piece of banana dropped by an infected bat escaping the destruction of its palm tree forest habitat in China. The contaminated pig was then slaughtered by a chef who shook hands with the first recorded case (the index case), Beth Emhoff (played by Gwyneth Paltrow).

Although the origin of the virus causing COVID-19 is still very much unknown or not yet fully recognised many have come with the proposition that just like in “Contagion”, animals were also the cause and progenitor of the virus, most especially the bats. Some zoologists and disease experts alongside ecologists have spoken with CNN and outline human destruction and encroachment of natural habitats of animals as a point to blame for the transmission of the disease. 

According to them, when bats are stressed—as a result of many factors including the loss of their habitat, their typically strong immune system is challenged, and has a harder time coping with pathogens they could usually fight off. This allows an increase in infections and the shedding of them. 

Also considering the point of origin of the virus, the Wuhan “wet market” in China, there is the theory that the countless wild animals kept there may also have been stressed and laden with infectious diseases which were transmitted when sold as food or pet or anything else. 

Another theory comes saying that the virus may have spread into humans from animals in a less deadly form and circulated at low levels in humans for years before adapting to us and becoming seriously infectious, this is according to recent research published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Whichever case or origin it has, the assumptions still cut pretty close to that of Contagion.

In the movie, those infected experienced symptoms ranging from fevers and profuse sweating to pounding headaches, sore throat and cough with seizures, dizziness and frothing at the mouth when victims passed.

Surprisingly, symptoms of COVID-19 are also quite similar with the exception of cases of seizures and frothing at the mouth which have not been recorded so far. Other common symptoms of COVID-19 actually include a fever of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 37.7 degrees Celsius, cough or trouble breathing while the emergency symptoms include persistent pain or pressure in the chest, “bluish lips or face” which indicates a lack of oxygen, sudden mental confusion, fatigue or inability to rouse.

Other not so common symptoms are Anosmia, a lack of sense of smell, and dygeusia, a lack of taste, and are commonly found at the early stages in patients with mild symptoms.

MEV-1 from “Contagion” just like COVID-19 from real life is a respiratory disease which is carried in expelled droplets of saliva from a sneeze or cough or other secretions and spreads directly between people when these droplets reach the eyes, nose or mouth of uninfected persons. 

“Contagion’s” virus is also transmitted by surfaces that have been contaminated with infections after sick humans touch them or formites. According to the WHO, COVID-19 also works pretty much the same way and it’s why people are urged to constantly wash their hands and avoid touching faces, practice social distancing and follow health experts advice just like they did in Contagion. 

In “Contagion”, Mitch Emhoff (played by Matt Damon), husband of index case Beth was supposedly immune to the virus and he seemed to have remained immune until the end of the movie by dodging coughing and sneezing persons and contacts all through the movie. 

So far there are no records of anyone immune to COVID-19. In an interview with physician Dr. Leana Wen, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked if there could be people that are immune to the virus via antibodies they developed after having and recovering from the disease. She replied, “This is what we want to get to. We don’t have that test yet. It’s being developed. But that would be great. It would be so helpful for people to know whether they have immunity.” She added, “There are some people who speculate that one might have immunity for a long time, even forever, but we just don’t know yet.”

The rate of infection or number of people that can be infected by a sick person or RO or R-naught in “Contagion” through the MEV-1 virus was 4 while for COVID-19 at the initial stage was 2.2 based on studies conducted by Chinese and American health officials. Their findings showed that the virus doubled about every seven days. 

“Contagion” has its mortality rate at about 25% to 30% of the general populace of the infected regions. As for COVID-19, as of March, mortality rate according to the CDC was between 1.8% to 3.4%.

The movie had blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) push for forsythia, a floral homeopathic tincture, as the cure for the virus, although studies hadn’t proved it worked despite the fact that he appeared to have recovered from the virus shortly after taking forsythia. This brought the population clamouring for forsythia to be prescribed in local pharmacies. His speculation led him to having some 12 million followers and several million dollars from the false claim, according to the film. 

Currently, there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19 yet but drugs like chloroquine and its analog hydroxychloroquine have become the remedial highlights in the race against the virus to the point of being called “game changers” by President Donald Trump. Both drugs which had been approved to be used for the treatment of malaria and other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have now been administered on patients with COVID-19.

The FDA issued a limited emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat patients hospitalized with Covid-19 as of March 29 despite the fact that there is not much evidence on the effects of the medication in the patients but said that benefits outweigh the risks for now.

The release of the drug so far has had many abusing the medication like the case of a man living in Phoenix who died after taking a non-pharmaceutical version of chloroquine in an attempt to prevent contracting the virus and his wife was in critical care after the two took it. His wife said he heard Trump tout the drug in a news conference and felt taking it would help prevent the spread of the virus to them. 

“Contagion’s” CDC research scientist Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) stresses that it can take months, maybe a year, to be able to distribute a vaccine after going through the many phases of testing, clinical trials, manufacturing and distribution. The whole procedure was however sped up by Hextall who sped it all up by inoculating herself with the final experimental vaccine, then was able to provide doses for human use in just several months.

Unlike in a movie, a vaccine would actually take between 8 and 10 years to develop according to infectious disease experts. Considering the urgency of things, health experts are trying to speed up the process for COVID-19. So far the closest option is a time-frame of a year to 18 months for the possible vaccine to come out. With that, a novel coronavirus vaccine Phase I trial in the US gave the first dose to test the safety of the vaccine to a participant in March, a progress for many who are awaiting the vaccine. 

“Contagion” saw the rise of civil unrest in various levels, people freighting, police being unable to curb the violent actions of people and so on. So far things have not gotten violent yet in the present and real life case, but the lesser forms of it have been established with enforced and compulsory lockdowns and the economy of the society crumbling gradually as people are being crippled with fear of what is to come. 

Towards the end, once the cure had been found and things returned to normal there is a scene where people wait in an airport to board their flight. Some still wear masks, but when a man in line drops something, the man behind him touches his shoulder to catch his attention, then leans down to pick the item up for him. The man seems grateful. Normalcy, maybe it’s a sign that the worst is behind them or naivety who knows. 

One thing for sure is that “Contagion” has taught people to be proactive, take precautions to save lives and also that there is hope of a brighter and safer future where the virus outbreak will be nothing but a memory in the lives of many who experienced it and another part of history to be told later on in future.