The Science of Contagion: Why You Should Be Scared of Hollywood's Latest Pandemic Thriller

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Warner Bros.

Chin Han, left, as Sun Feng and Marion Cotillard, center, as Dr. Leonora Orantes in Contagion.

The virus begins in a bat, before spreading to domesticated pigs in an industrial pork farm built on recently cleared forestland. After a few invisible mutations, the virus jumps to a chef in the Chinese city of Macau, who was probably infected when blood from a sick pig he was preparing slipped into a cut on his fingers. From there it spreads to a group of unlucky victims who come into contact with the chef: an American woman on business in Macau, a Hong Kong waiter, a Japanese salaryman.

They sicken and die, but not before seeding new outbreaks along their travels that quickly metastasize, infecting tens of thousands more. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the World Health Organization in Geneva send epidemiologists to trace back the origin of the new disease, while virologists struggle to isolate and identify the new pathogen. Social panic and economic catastrophe sets in, as news of the virus spread almost as fast as its symptoms do. Without an effective vaccine, millions could die worldwide — but our smartest scientists have nothing.

I'm describing the beginning of the new film Contagion, but except for a few details, I could be describing the early stages of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. Fortunately the world got lucky with SARS — though it had a fatality rate of nearly 10%, the virus didn't spread very easily, and it burned out in less than a year. But Contagion tells the story of what might have happened if SARS — or any new, emerging virus — couldn't have been stopped quickly. The diseases reaches almost every corner of the planet, killing so many people that corpses — carefully bagged so they don't infect the living — need to be stacked in mass graves. It's not just the sickness — fear spreads as fast as the virus itself.

And ultimately that's what makes Contagion so scary — it shows what would actually happen in the case of a severe pandemic, from the panic-buying of bogus herbal cures to international squabbling over limited vaccine supplies. The film's realism makes it a rarity in Hollywood, where most disease movies would have flunked high-school biology. Think Dustin Hoffman hamming it up in a biohazard suit in 1995's Outbreak, or the space-borne microbes of The Andromeda Strain in 1971. The science in Contagion unfolds so flawlessly it can feel like the film was ripped from a CDC handbook — which isn't far off. Horror movies usually have a malevolent villain — the crazed serial killer — or they're about the evil we bring down on ourselves through greed or hubris. But no one's guilty in Contagion of anything other than being afraid, and the villain has no motive and no mind. It's just a sub-microscopic pack of genes, carrying out its biological destiny.

To get the science right, director Steven Soderbergh and his team took technical advice from an array of infectious disease experts, including Columbia University virus hunter Ian Lipkin, who designed the template for the microbe featured in the film. (Notably, the bug doesn't do anything as cinematic as cause its victims to explode in blood, Ebola-style — it just gives them a nasty cough and a fever, and then they die.) Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle, who play CDC scientists, learned how to grow bacterial cultures and take genetic samples. Lipkin even coached star Gwyneth Paltrow how to better portray a seizure; the results can be seen in Paltrow's pale and terror-stricken face just before the virus apparently turns her brain into so much GOOP.

But what really sets Contagion apart as a disease film isn't just the high-tech labs and the CDC-speak; it's also the depiction of swift, brutal societal breakdown after a killer suddenly appears in our midst. Unlike a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, infectious disease doesn't bring us together — it could well tear us apart, because coming together is exactly what would spread the disease. Would nurses and doctors stay on the job, knowing their patients could make them sick? If the number of ill people became overwhelming, would some simply be left to die as limited medical resources were husbanded? How would the government decide who gets treatments and vaccines first — and who would be last in line?

I had a chance to see something like a test run for the Contagion experience when I reported for TIME in Hong Kong in the spring of 2003, as SARS spread. It was legitimately scary — a disease was killing young and healthy people, including some of the doctors treating sick patients, and we didn't know what it was. Those who could afford to sent their families away, while the rest of us went around in public in surgical masks, though perhaps more for the psychological benefit than anything medical. The city's usually bustling airport was deserted, thanks in part to a travel advisory placed on the city by the WHO, which left us all feeling quarantined. After a few weeks it became clear that the virus was easy to slow, and the dread lifted, but if that hadn't happened, things could have gotten very ugly.

That's why we should take Contagion as a warning — which is exactly how Soderbergh and his colleagues mean it. Not every new disease is going to turn into a deadly pandemic (the 2009 H1N1 flu was more fizzle than fatal) but it would be a mistake to let down our guard. Forget economic depression, nuclear war or an errant asteroid — nothing poses a bigger threat to human civilization over the long term than the right virus in the wrong place. We need investments in better vaccine technology — amazingly, we still laboriously grow flu vaccine in hundreds of millions of chicken eggs, which takes months. We also need a tougher public health sector capable of weathering a pandemic that would sicken millions of Americans at the same time. Otherwise, what you see on the screen in Contagion could be coming to a neighborhood near you.