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The contagion of Contagion
The ur-text for our Covid response turns out to be a 2011 movie starring everyone's favorite Goop peddler
Remember how the pandemic started?
The virus came for the young first. The hot model in London. The adulterous wife in Minneapolis. The highly fit guy in Hong Kong. All so healthy. And young!
Then they got infected. And died. They had seizures or something, it’s hard to tell exactly how the virus killed them, but they definitely died.
Worst of all, the adulterous wife gave the virus to her stepson. He died too. But not before giving it to lots of other kids.
I remember it like it was yesterday. A terrible time. We were right to be afraid. We needed to be afraid. We needed to trust the Centers for Disease Control to save us all. And it did!
We definitely didn’t need to listen to the grifting blogger who was making millions of dollars peddling false hope -
Wait a minute.
That wasn’t Covid. That was Contagion.
Contagion came out in September 2011. I saw it years ago. Can’t remember exactly when. Maybe on a plane? It’s a great plane movie, the plot clicks along but if you miss a minute no big deal. Yep, the virus is still virusing and the scientists are still sciencing -
So many stars, too. Gwyneth Paltrow! Matt Damon! Jude Law! Kate Winslet! And Bryan Cranston and Lawrence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard and -
Normally getting all those names in one movie would be tough. But Contagion had an edge. It was what Hollywood calls a message picture.
And the message was this:
Trust the science. And especially the bureaucrats.
I watched Contagion again a couple of weeks back. Call it research, because it was. The movie turns out to be a critical milestone in the development of the Pandemia to come.
For generations public health experts had encouraged restrained government responses to epidemics. The conventional wisdom was that so-called “non-pharmaceutical inventions” like quarantines, travel bans, school closures, and mandatory tracing probably wouldn’t help much. Even if they did, they risked stigmatizing infected people and came with huge costs to society.
After the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the SARS epidemic of 2003-4, a new group of experts came along.
Never mind that for all the attention they received, anthrax and SARS combined killed fewer than 800 people worldwide, fewer than the number who die of tuberculosis every six hours.
Never mind that the world had made steady progress on the most dangerous infectious diseases, eliminating smallpox and even turning HIV into a manageable threat. Or that it had not suffered a truly serious influenza epidemic since 1918.
To these new experts, all the good news was actually bad news!
We needed to be very afraid. The perfect virus, the perfect mix of transmissibility and lethality, was out there, even if we couldn’t find it.
Yes, less death now just equaled more death later. Because science.
They even came up with a cool name for it: Disease X. X marks the spot.
(For illustrative purposes only!)
Put aside for now what this doomsday attitude meant for viral research both in labs and on the ground. Or how it intersected with accelerating changes in biotechnology and genetic research. Or how it slowly seeped into government planning for potential epidemics. Or how its most ardent advocates gained the backing of some of the world’s wealthiest people.
Focus now on just one point.
The new experts were frustrated with the public’s disinterest in (nonexistent) pandemics. This myopia made raising money for their work harder. And their work was expensive. They complained privately and publicly. “It is easy to forget about public health and the threat of emerging infectious diseases,” one wrote (in the Atlantic, inevitably).
How could they make the proles see what wasn’t there?
Contagion was part of the answer. It wasn’t just another thriller. It was a lavishly produced call to antiviral arms. With Matt Damon! Experts on virology and infectious disease, as well as the World Health Organization, even worked with the filmmakers to make sure the script was accurate.
You will never guess who comes off amazingly well in Contagion.
Yep, the heroes are all either virologists or health bureaucrats. And not just any health bureaucrats. Health bureaucrats at the highest level, the ones who work for the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Or both.
They tell the dumb state health department bureaucrats what to do! They get kidnapped by the Chinese but only for the best possible reason! They sacrifice themselves for the greater good!
Meanwhile the public steals food and riots. Even nurses don’t get a break. One of the movie’s plot points is that they go on strike because they’re too afraid to work.
What is funny-not-funny about Contagion is how real it feels - and how false it turned out to be.
The movie puts its thumb on the scale in ways large and small. Its “MEV” virus has an incredibly high infection fatality rate, up to 30 percent. Thus three out of every 10 people who are infected with the virus die - young and old alike. They go from well to sick to dead in a couple of days, but for most of that time have only mild symptoms. Thus the seizures. And thus the very high R0.
Contagion is also weirdly obsessed with the idea of fomites - transmission by touch. (The bigger a problem fomite transmission represents, the more effective “reasonable” social distancing is likely to be.)
The most accurate part might be the vaccine development schedule.
It goes like so: a successful test in one monkey, followed by a test in one human (the brilliant CDC researcher who came up the shot), followed by distribution to eight billion people! More or less how Warp Speed went. Only those guys were wise enough not to try the miracle jabs on themselves first.
Also I missed the part in the movie where drug companies made $100 billion selling shots with liability-free guaranteed contracts.
Contagion does have one actual villain, though.
He’s a journalist, but really he’s just a blogger. Eww. When first we meet him he’s begging the San Francisco Chronicle to let him write an article.
And he’s a conspiracy theorist. And he’s a lying liar, he tells everyone that an extract from the forsythia plant will save them but he doesn’t believe it himself. Because bloggers, you know.
And he’s a grifter. He makes millions of dollars trading stocks in forsythia companies or something, that part isn’t totally clear either but he gets arrested for sure. And he lets his pregnant girlfriend - his pregnant girlfriend! - die from the virus instead of giving her the forsythia he knows doesn’t work to save her. Worst of all, he talks too fast and he runs in a really weird way when the FBI comes to arrest him for the securities fraud.
Yeah, he’s a bad guy. Even worse than Gwyneth Paltrow, who screws around on Matt Damon, poor sincere Matt Damon. (Though she works for a company that makes construction equipment to cut down trees. She pretty much deserves to die for causing global warming anyway.)
Yes, along with trust the bureaucrats, Contagion’s lesson is clear: the Internet is filled with liars!
The people who made Contagion were very proud of what they’d done and how accurate it was. They wanted us to know it was the future.
Sure enough they were right.
As they bragged when the future finally arrived, after any number of misses between 2011 and 2020.
How did they turn out so prescient?
That, friends, is a story for another day.