Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I recently watched the movie Contagion. As usual, my review of this movie is several years late.

I thought that this movie hit the right balance of Hollywood plot and sound science. It had the requisite feel-good ending, which I will not spoil, in case there are one or two of you who have not seen it. The reason that it had this ending was that few people can tolerate a piece of fiction, let alone a movie, that tells the story of a population. We need stories about individuals as much today as we did around the Paleolithic campfire. Even nonfiction has a hard time engaging the attention of readers without the information being woven on a personal-story framework. It was such a personal story that made an otherwise flawed book, The Man who Planted Trees (see earlier review from last November 26), interesting. And I understand the producers of the movie relied on professional advice for the science.

The point is not whether the events in the movie are likely to occur. Each step in the sequence of events (bat to pig to Chinese meal to human to millions of humans) is unlikely. But if the entire sequence has odds of a billion to one, then in a world of seven billion people (starting in China, with over a billion people and even more pigs) the sequence is mathematically inevitable. Let’s hope the odds are at least a trillion to one.

The scientific point of the movie was to raise questions about what could happen should such a virus spread through the world. The virus could spread through personal contact and through fomites (pronounced fo-mi-tees; the actors got the pronunciation wrong). What would happen if people in charge of crisis management broke the rules, ever so slightly, to save the life of just one person they loved? What would happen if a lone blogger tapped into the hysteria of millions by saying that the government was hiding a homeopathic cure in order to assure profits for big pharma? And would this blogger merely be profiting from the sales of the homeopathic “cure”? Could the scenario in which the WHO official was kidnapped by the Chinese in return for ransom (vaccine shots) actually happen? Are scientists who violate the rules (like the professor and the CDC scientist), in order to expedite research, heroes? Would there have to be a lottery for the vaccine, which would have a huge black market value? Would people riot and kill in order to get their hands on MREs (meals ready to eat)? Would there be statewide quarantines enforced by military firepower? I think that the message that I am left with is that any such outbreak would have unforeseen consequences.

Evolution protects us from becoming extinct due to epidemics: there is genetic variation in individuals, making some of them (such as the Matt Damon character) resistant; and natural selection operates in populations by balanced pathogenicity (at least for diseases, such as this one, that spreads by direct contact). But it does not protect individuals. And humans have a level of worldwide interconnectedness that is unprecedented in the history of the Earth.

Evolution has given us the ability to plan ahead. As I have written in earlier entries, we seem to have discarded the use of this ability. The federal government of the USA seems to constantly be doing a danse macabre of fiscal cliffs, which are artificial crises. And those of you in other countries who read this—is your government any better? In some cases, yes. Would our government be prepared to deal with a pandemic such as the one shown in the movie Contagion? The producers wisely left the federal government, beyond the CDC and Homeland Security, out of the plot, for otherwise they would have been forced to incorporate sick humor into this movie.

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