‘Contagion’ writer, scientific adviser reflect on film’s newfound relevance amid coronavirus crisis

February 12, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

Nothing spreads like fear.

Nine years after the release of Contagion, a Steven Soderbergh–directed epidemiology thriller bearing that tagline, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China’s Wuhan province—declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has since renamed the disease it causes COVID-19—has sent shock waves through the world’s economy and incited panic far from the disease’s apparent point of origin.

It has also led to a resurgence of interest in Contagion, which recently hit No. 10 on iTunes and has been the subject of numerous articles comparing its fictional pandemic to the real one. Both outbreaks originated in China, with the virus most likely passing from a bat to another animal before it spread to humans.

Given these surface-level similarities, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns isn’t surprised the 2011 film might be of particular interest to those rattled by COVID-19’s spread—its death toll surpassed 1,100 this week, almost entirely in China. But he questions whether viewers are keying into the film’s larger points about social panic during infectious disease outbreaks.

“The similarities between our contagion and the coronavirus are immaterial, accidental, and really not that important,” Burns tells Fortune via phone. “What is more important and accurate is the societal response and the spread of fear and the knock-on effects of that. That is proving to be accurate.”

The 2011 film “Contagion” experienced a surge in popularity on iTunes amid coronavirus fears.
Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection

If Contagion’s virus bears tangible similarities to COVID-19, there’s a simple reason for that: Burns did his research.

In writing the script for Contagion, Burns always set out to make the most scientifically accurate version of a pandemic thriller he could, enlisting doctors W. Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant to help create an imaginary virus based on both science and their firsthand experiences within the field of epidemiology. It was through speaking with the scientists that Burns also hatched ideas about how society might react to such a virus, from the looting of storefronts to a messianic “fake news” vlogger played by Jude Law.

“When I originally pitched this idea to Steven Soderbergh, I said I wanted Contagion to be as grounded in science as it possibly could be,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to do a Hollywood disaster movie that played loose with the science. The heroes needed to be scientists.”

Luckily, in Brilliant and Lipkin, Burns had two “hero scientists” at his disposal. In the 1970s, Brilliant was one of the epidemiologists who finally drove smallpox off the map. He later became the first CEO of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, launched by former eBay president Jeff Skoll to combat threats against humanity.

Lipkin, meanwhile, is known in his field as a “master virus hunter,” a reputation earned across three decades of racing against time to identify and combat new viruses, from West Nile virus to the 2003 SARS outbreak. (Lipkin, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, is currently on a 14-day self-quarantine at his home in New York after traveling to China to advise local health officials on COVID-19.)

One aspect of epidemiology that fascinated Burns was experts’ widespread consensus that infectious disease outbreaks aren’t “a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” he says. “I’m not surprised that what they told me was a possible occurrence came to pass.”

“If you look at human history and go back to the Spanish flu, we get these outbreaks, and they occur constantly, and there’s no reason to believe that will change,” explains Burns. “What’s particularly disconcerting is when it’s called a ‘novel virus,’ meaning no one on earth that we know of has ever had to deal with it before. It’s a new challenge for the human immune system. It takes time for our species to figure out.”

Burns, pictured in 2019, says he “didn’t want to do a Hollywood disaster movie that played loose with the science” when he wrote “Contagion.”
Vera Anderson—WireImage/Getty Images

Burns also consulted with Lipkin’s Columbia colleagues, as well as Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Laurie Garrett (author of The Coming Plague). Says Brilliant: “We wanted to reset people’s ideas of what a real pandemic could look like, and to do it with impeccable science. What we gathered together was a team of the best scientists in the world to make sure that we, by accident or design, did not engage in hyperbole.”

To concoct the fictional MEV-1 virus that infamously felled Gwyneth Paltrow at the beginning of Contagion, the scientists—working on computers at Columbia—mimicked characteristics of two related viruses primarily found in bats but occasionally transmittable to humans: Nipah, from Southeast Asia; and Hendra, from Australia. Splicing those two together with influenza, they genetically engineered the fictional virus to spread through bodily fluids or coughing. In pursuit of something more cinematic than an agent that only causes respiratory distress, they leaned on Nipah’s classification as a paramyxovirus that infects the lungs and the brain.

“[MEV-1] swelled up out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain,” notes Brilliant. “It had people vomiting or going into seizures, captured on video. That’s the kind of stuff that creates more fear.”

It’s here that Brilliant stresses one key difference between MEV-1 and the real-life COVID-19. “This [coronavirus outbreak], for most people, has been a much more mild disease,” says Brilliant. “This may be a disease that turns out to be widespread, but with a low death rate.”

“Most viruses that are airborne are odorless, tasteless, and invisible,” continues Brilliant. “That doesn’t make for good theater. The symptoms we wrote about, that we concocted, are not the same symptoms as this disease.” 

A culture of fear

Contagion charts the spread of two distinct viruses: the fictional MEV-1 pandemic, and the culture of fear its spread gives rise to, causing society to splinter and stymieing the international community’s ability to respond to the outbreak. Currently, Burns is preoccupied with headlines he’s seen about public responses to COVID-19, many by people making fear-based decisions that go against counsel from health experts.

Face masks are flying off shelves as healthy consumers seek to get ahead of coronavirus, creating a potential shortfall for medical workers more likely to come into contact with it. While face masks are relatively effective at preventing sick people from transmitting their illness, experts say they’re far less effective at keeping healthy people from getting sick.

People line up outside a Hong Kong pharmacy on Feb. 6 in hopes of purchasing surgical masks, which have been in short supply.
Geovien so—SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Petitions seeking to close districts and universities across the United States, citing the coronavirus as a reason to keep students home, are racking up signatures, while other school districts are erupting in panic without any confirmed cases of the virus in their communities. And though only a dozen cases of the novel virus have been confirmed inside the U.S., ride-sharing platforms are already experiencing an uptick in bigoted complaints, and Chinatowns across the country are struggling to retain business, two grim reminders of xenophobic and racist tensions that often become inflamed in times of crisis.

“Beyond the science of the virus,” says Burns, “what Steven Soderbergh and I were interested in was using it to trace a bullet through our society, and how the preexisting conditions in our society make us susceptible to fear as well as the virus.”

The key to the film, he says, is a scene in which Laurence Fishburne’s CDC official, Dr. Ellis Cheever, appears on CNN to debate the character of Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist who rises to fame by stoking anti-government sentiment as the pandemic spreads. At one point, Krumwiede fakes contracting MEV-1 so that he can “cure” himself on his popular video blog with a simple homeopathic remedy derived from forsythia. The public responds by overwhelming pharmacies in search of it, causing the virus to spread as infected individuals come into contact with healthy people.

“In order to become sick,” says Fishburne’s Cheever in that scene, “you have to first come into contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumor, or the television, or the Internet. I think what Mr. Krumwiede is spreading is far more dangerous than the disease.”

Jude Law plays a conspiracy theorist in 2011’s “Contagion.”
Claudette Barius—Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection

Public overreaction and panic, inflamed by social media platforms and eroded trust in media institutions, has been on Burns’ mind a lot lately, as it was when he first sat down to write Contagion. Burns points out that the United States is already in the midst of its own health crisis: seasonal flu. According to CDC estimates from Oct. 1, 2019, up until Feb. 1, there have been between 22 million and 31 million cases of flu in the U.S.

“We have limited capacity for what Dr. Brilliant called risk assessment,” Burns explains. “If you read the paper every day, you might see a lot of stories about people dying in car accidents. There aren’t stories about people dying of high blood pressure and heart attacks. Journalists don’t really write stories about these more mundane things.

“That people are terrified of coronavirus and don’t care at all about seasonal flu comes to this large point of our inability to differentiate risk,” he adds. “People don’t go swimming because of Jaws but will do things much riskier than swimming in the ocean. That’s a problem for people in the public health sector, because once people become terrified, it’s hard to manage.”

For his part, Burns advises that you wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and trust experts within the scientific community, as well as be wary of misinformation spread on social media by fearmongering outlets, or by politicians with dubious agendas.

Late last month, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross commented that the coronavirus outbreak in China would help “accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” insinuating that he saw the disease as a business opportunity.

“If he said that, he’s unfit for public office, and for public trust,” says Brilliant. “Those of us in public health have a custodial and fiduciary duty to the health of the public. We can’t profit off it. But we’re in a time of rising nationalism, and you can’t make this into a political event; but I can’t not comment on the fact smallpox was only eradicated because scientists from dozens of countries—every religion, race, and language—came together against it.”

Burns added that it “terrified” him to hear Ross so dehumanize the suffering of Chinese people. “Everyone has a different socioeconomic circumstance,” says Burns. “Everyone has their own tribal views, their own confirmation biases, and preconceived notions. But fear doesn’t make us better equipped to be rational.”

Weak health care systems complicate the battle

Brilliant specializes in risk assessment, envisioning a spectrum of scenarios and preparing for each that has a “nonzero probability” of occurring. His work depends on acknowledging what no one yet knows: for example, which coefficient of risk to put on each probability—the virus could evolve to become deadlier or die out altogether, to outline two scenarios.

He and others have concerns about the preparedness of countries with far fewer resources to identify and treat infectious disease. When it comes to treating pandemics, the world’s defenses are only as strong as those established in its poorest communities, he says. Even if cities from Boston to San Francisco are well equipped to contain COVID-19, the virus could continue to spread in lower-resource countries. And if it does, the harm to those countries could be catastrophic, especially if the virus continues to evolve, in which case it could theoretically become deadlier.

“The problem is that two dozen countries have received importations of that disease, but only two people have died outside of China,” Brilliant says. “That means the disease has been met in Thailand and the United States with a speed of detection that’s prevented the disease from becoming a second, full-blown locus of disease.

“Think about a fire raging, that spews sparks everywhere, but it’s landing on fire-prepared land,” adds Brilliant. “But if you go through that list of 25 countries, what’s missing from that list? Where’s Venezuela? Where’s Zimbabwe? Where are the mining communities in Africa so many Chinese workers go to? Five million people left Wuhan before they went into isolation. They didn’t not go to Venezuela. My fear is what we don’t know. Are there countries with weak immunity systems where the virus has been there for five weeks, spreading unseen?”

Brilliant’s aware that he sounds less than reassuring. That’s just the gig. “Epidemiologists like myself have predicted 10 of the last two pandemics,” he says, chuckling. “We have to be careful what we say. But I do worry which of those countries might propagate this disease and don’t have testing labs and facilities, or adequate health infrastructure.”

While technologies that exist to help identify infectious diseases have advanced considerably since Contagion’s release, funding for public health infrastructure has not been increased, especially in less developed nations. But even in the United States, under the Trump administration, funding to the CDC has been cut, hamstringing researchers as they race to protect civilians against biological threats. This, say both Burns and Brilliant, puts humanity at risk in a profound, preventable manner.

“Public health infrastructure is something we don’t pay attention to, until it’s way too fucking late,” says Burns. “We don’t go in very much for prevention. Then, suddenly, we’ve underfunded this important part of our society, and a situation needs attention, but you’re already way behind.”

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