Open Twitter and you’ll likely see people talking about Contagion, Outbreak, and The Andromeda Strain. On Netflix, the docuseries Pandemic is trending. The cause of this is obvious. Coronavirus news has everyone on high alert, fretting about what could happen if it turns into a global health crisis. Watching epidemic entertainment will likely lead to one of two outcomes: being fearful that things could get even worse or being comforted that, in the end, life will find a way.
Of the available virus movies and TV shows that are out there—and there are a lot—which ones get it right? Which ones really show the best ways to respond to disease outbreaks? A while back, WIRED asked Brian Amman, an ecologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who works with the viral special pathogens branch, to analyze a few contenders and see which ones did the best job showing a typical response. “I guess the idea of a pandemic can really bring out the fear and the panic in people, but they tend to be not nearly as uncontrollable as Hollywood makes it seem,” he concluded. “A lot of the work that the CDC does is to make sure that disease outbreaks like this don’t ever get to the stage of a global pandemic. Viruses that you’ve seen in these clips are basically Hollywood fiction, and real-life viruses that are out there are hardly ever, if at all, as fast-acting.”
So far, that seems true of the new coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean some of the aspects of the worldwide response to the disease don’t ring true—or that they won’t if the virus accelerates its spread. All those people having their temperatures checked at airports? That’s happening worldwide, and it also happened in 2010’s The Crazies. (See also: those eye scans in I Am Legend.) Though, Amman notes, temperature checks only let you know if someone might have an infection—figuring out if they have a disease would require a blood test sent to a lab.
What about viruses that originate in animals? SARS-CoV-2 seems to have originated in bats, and other diseases—MERS, SARS—also came from animals. But whereas Contagion showed a very accurate depiction of a disease going from bats to pigs to people, Outbreak has “a ton of problems.” For one, it shows people using a human child as bait to lure a monkey and tranquilize it; for another, it shows a South American monkey in Africa. “That monkey deserves an Oscar,” Amman says.
As for protective measures, many films get this wrong. Often, folks are seen getting decontaminated before they go into an area where a virus exists; normally they’d do it after. Remember in Outbreak when Dustin Hoffman, in a full hazmat suit, went and met someone who had theoretically not been exposed? Yeah, that was dumb. He exposed that man to everything on his suit. “Truly, this guy should know better,” Amman says. Also, that skin-removing thing from The Andromeda Strain? Fiction. “Nobody in their right mind would let themselves get cooked to the point where their outer layer of epithelium is turned to ash,” he says.
Finally, what about all the disease-analyzing and -tracking gadgetry? Is any of that real? Yes and no. Amman notes that the patterns of virus movement shown in a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is fairly accurate, but the whiz-bang stuff you might’ve seen on The Walking Dead? Not real. “There’s not artificial intelligence at the CDC,” he says. But, once again, this is something Contagion gets right. In the film there’s a computer simulation of how a virus might operate in the human body. Computer software does exist to “form a three-dimensional image of the virus itself, and they can identify, though sequencing, which parts of the virus are the receptors, where it binds to the human cell, which parts are coding for certain proteins that cause human illness,” Amman says.
Check out some more of his analysis in the video above. Then go fire up your streaming device—but not without washing your hands first.
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