A Modeler’s Review of ‘Contagion’

Would descent into anarchy and selfishness be our reaction to an event like the one portrayed in the movie Contagion? Or would we pull together and become more altruistic in the face of such a massive catastrophe?

And that, too, is natural enough. In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity.

Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.

Albert Camus: The Plague

We’ve been modeling infectious disease outbreaks at IEM for more than a decade now, so when Contagion was released, I was most interested in seeing how this type of disaster scenario would be portrayed on the big screen. Fairly reasonably, as it turns out.

Spontaneous adaptation to the outbreak, such as social distancing and isolation is shown in the film, as is selfishness, murder, and the breakdown of law and order. The film is an ambitious attempt to portray a scenario that could indeed happen one day. But how people would react to an event like this is unknown, since such an outbreak is unprecedented in recent history, and humans are quite unpredictable, to say the least.

The aspects of the Contagion story that are perhaps the most unsettling are its high mortality rate, its rapid spread, and the mundane origin of the virus. The Contagion pathogen appears to be based on a mix of animal reservoirs of diseases such as influenza and Ebola, and spreads like SARS. The Contagion scenario is a perfect storm.

Deadly contagious pathogens are constantly evolving and moving among species as their host defenses allow, and as humans continue to colonize previously undisturbed ecosystems the opportunity for these novel diseases to invade our populations increases. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that in our globalized economy we now move so rapidly and frequently around the planet that any such invasion could spread quite rapidly among many regions and emerge almost simultaneously- like hundreds of separate fires that erupt across a city, more or less at once, overwhelming the fire departments.

I continued this conversation with the Durham Herald-Sun, and their reporter asked similar questions about how prepared are we to deal with a Contagion scenario (Read interview).


Author: Mike Boechler, Director, Research & Development Programs