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'Contagion': how a 2011 film predicted the coronavirus epidemic

Released in 2011, Contagion never became a blockbuster. Despite the stellar cast (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Michael Douglas played in the film), the picture at the box office took only 61st place in the world that year. Writes about it with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

However, now the picture has appeared in the list of the most downloaded films in the iTunes Store in the USA, and on Google the number of search queries containing the name of the film is breaking all records.

If in December, when we first heard about the appearance of a new coronavirus in China, according to the Warner Bros. studio, the film occupied only 270 lines in their popularity catalog, then after three months “Infection” lags behind only the Harry Potter series.

And all this is due to the coronavirus and the amazing similarity of the plot of the film from ten years ago to the events that develop in real life.

Movie repeating life

In the film, a businesswoman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, dies from a mysterious and deadly virus that caused panic all over the world, which she infected in China.

The connection with China is just one of the many traced parallels between the film and reality, which is why audiences have rushed to watch the movie with great interest in recent years.

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Gwyneth Paltrow herself warmed up the interest in the film, posting her masked photo on Instagram during a transatlantic flight on February 26.

“I've already been in this movie,” wrote the actress, who has almost 7 million subscribers, “so stay calm, refrain from shaking hands, wash your hands more often.”

Find the difference

In fact, the parallels with reality in this film are impressive.

The heroine played by Paltrow, through a handshake, is infected with the MEV-1 virus in Hong Kong from a chef who cooked pork, and the ill-fated pig, in turn, was infected with a bat.

A woman returns home to the United States, falls ill, and soon dies. Her son dies, but her husband, played by Matt Damon, is resistant to this infection.

In reality, according to experts, the infection in Wuhan began after the virus crossed the interspecific barrier in December and was transmitted from animal to human.

And it is very likely that, as in the case of the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, bats were the primary source of the virus, and then through other animal intermediaries it passed to humans.

In the film, a pig became such an animal, but WHO experts associate the epidemic with game markets in Wuhan.

Like a true Covid-19 strain of coronavirus, a fictitious virus spreads through close human contact or contact with infected surfaces.

Everything is as in reality

Both movie and real diseases affect the respiratory tract, but MEV-1 is a mutation of the real-life Nipah virus, which belongs to a different family than Covid-19.

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And the current flash is far less deadly than the screen. In the film, heroes often mention a mortality rate of 25%, while mortality from Covid-19, according to WHO, ranges from 3,4%.

MEV-1 kills 26 million people worldwide in a month. The number of coronavirus victims in the four months since the outbreak in China has not yet reached 7 thousand people.

So far, only the Spaniard remains comparable in scale to the cinematic epidemic, which in the years 1918-1920 claimed more than 50 million lives.


When an outbreak of a virus occurs in a film, employees of the Sanitary and Epidemiological Intelligence Service are given the task of identifying and isolating the infected.

In the course of action, all of Chicago is in the quarantine zone, which is very reminiscent of the real development of events in China, where entire cities were quarantined.

In an attempt to cope with the outbreak of coronavirus, Italy went the same way.

Fear and Domino Effect

The surge of interest in Contagion greatly surprised scriptwriter Scott Burns.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, he confirmed that the filmmakers set themselves the task of showing how modern society is not prepared for this kind of epidemic.

“The similarities between Contagion and the coronavirus are subtle, accidental and really not that important,” Burns said. “The public reaction, the spread of fear and the domino effect turned out to be much more important and more accurate.”

Probably Burns in the first place had in mind one of the heroes of the film, the blogger Alan Crumvied, keen on conspiracy theories.

Crumvied, played by Jude Law, spreads groundless rumors about the virus and touts treatment that doesn't really help.

In reality, retail giant Amazon recently announced that it has blocked more than a million deals, as sellers falsely claimed that their product could prevent infection or cure Covid-19.

Well-known American televangelist Jim Bakker this week also ran into problems with the New York State authorities after he began to advertise a tonic with silver as a cure for the virus.

The coronavirus outbreak also triggered a flood of fake news and rumors that the virus was supposedly designed as a biological weapon.

Even the screenwriter Burns was at the center of one of the conspiracy theories.

In an interview with the New York Times, he said that in social networks he is accused of being a secret organization that rules the world.

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“What amazed me most about this is how the spread of disinformation can become as widespread and dangerous as a virus,” he admitted.

Scientific credibility

The surge in interest in Contagion can partly be attributed to Burns's efforts to give the film as much scientific credibility as possible.

While working on the script, he consulted with leading virologists and epidemiologists, including WHO experts.

And they seriously scared him.

“When I spoke to the experts, they all emphasized that the epidemic is not a question of 'if', it is a question of 'when,'” admitted Burns.

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