What's Realistic and What's Not in Your Favourite Pandemic Films

How close are we to the dystopias we winced at in 'Outbreak', 'Contagion' and '28 Days Later'?
April 10, 2020, 8:45am
Contagion 2011
Photos: 'Contagion' Trailer

Films aren't supposed to represent real life. In Hollywood, Dungeons & Dragons nerds have sex with cheerleaders. Giant white sharks terrorise the inhabitants of an island. Birds turn against humans. A bald extraterrestrial with long fingers cycles through the sky.

But given the current situation, it increasingly feels as though we're living through something you could pay to see at Vue (although I'm not sure footage of millions of people stress-eating ginger biscuits in front of Bargain Hunt would be a commercial success).

I used to watch crisis films and find their plot lines scary, but I'm now forced to talk to all of my friends on video calls because if I touch them one of us could end up in hospital. I turn on the TV and the cast of Contagion are giving advice on how to stay safe. Perhaps we really are one step away from Will Smith smashing through the living room window and telling us to get onto his helicopter?


To see how close we are to the dystopias we wince at onscreen, I asked two virologists to fact check three pandemic films. Read it and weep! Unless you were already weeping! In which case, carry on!

28 Days Later (2002)

VICE: In 28 Days Later humans start getting infected by a "rage virus". Is it possible to be infected by an emotion?
Prof Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London: No, that couldn't happen. But there are viruses which cause responses that could be interpreted as rage. Rabies affects your nervous system, it makes you lose control, and you behave in a very strange way that could be interpreted as anger.

After getting bitten, people have 20 to 30 seconds before they become infected. Are there viruses that could take effect this quickly?
Viruses can be transmitted from one person to another through a bite, but not that quickly. Viruses need to make more of themselves, and that takes time. First, they have to penetrate one of your cells, often through the lining of the mouth. Then they must spread to other cells. With the flu, it takes about 24 hours before you even recognise you have some sort of disease. The only thing that will take effect immediately is a toxin. A snake could bite you and it could paralyse you in seconds. But that's not a virus – that's a sort of protein that affects the nerves.

How does that compare to Covid-19?
It may take between four to seven days to start to give you symptoms, or even longer. Certainly not immediately.

Outbreak (1995)

VICE: How realistic is the virus jump between "Betsy" the monkey to a small Californian village via the black market in Outbreak?
Dr Jennifer Rohn, an infectious diseases scientist at University College London: You need only look at the current coronavirus crisis to appreciate that new human pathogens are often born after jumping from an animal host. COVID-19 probably started in bats. A chimpanzee-to-human jump was responsible for the creation of HIV, probably back in the 1950s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the result of contact with infected meat.

Ebolavirus, upon which Outbreak’s "Motaba virus" is heavily based, is thought to periodically spread to humans via fruit bats or non-human primates. In the film, the virus is initially spread via saliva and blood, both plausible modes of transmission. The only thing implausible about the scenario is that white-headed capuchin monkeys are not found in Africa – they only live in the New World. It was also impossible that the scientists could have whipped up an antibody-based cure for an entire town in a matter of hours from the blood of one small monkey – but where's the fun in scolding Hollywood for that?


They're shaking hands in Cedar Creek, where the virus has spread. Would that happen ever?
There is a lot of lax behaviour in Outbreak. Handshaking in places where the virus is at large, characters mingling with unprotected people while wearing previously-exposed protective gear… but as with much of film-making, too much realism would probably have dragged down the plot. The BL4 safety suits look fairly accurate for the 1990s, but they don't appear to have been properly inflated.

It turns out the US military created the Motaba virus as a biological weapon and want to protect it. Has this ever happened before?
If I knew the answer to this and told you, I'd have to kill you! But seriously, governments have used bioweapons in the past – for example, anthrax – and it's anyone's guess how much development of these agents is ongoing, although research into preventative counter-measures certainly is. Such weapons are, of course, banned by international law.

What are the chances of something like this happening the future?
I think it's safe to say that pandemics will keep coming; we live in an increasingly globalised, crowded world, and humans are infiltrating even the most virgin of environments, encountering animals and microbes that we – and our immune systems – have never seen before. It will depend on the type and severity of the virus whether our future pandemics will be as bad as the virus featured in Outbreak.

Initially, the virus is spread through direct contact, but then it "goes airborne" so that it spreads like flu. Can viruses change like this?
Viruses can indeed mutate. This is especially true for those whose genetic blueprint is comprised of RNA instead of DNA, which for various reasons makes for sloppier copying during the viral replication cycle. The reason why we need a new flu jab every year, for example, is because of the massive variation that this virus exhibits: it is perpetually swapping its coat proteins to fool our immune system, mixing and matching with genes the viruses pick up when going through animal hosts such as chickens and pigs. The more extreme the mutation, the scarier the virus is: such exotic animal virus patchworks are responsible for pandemic strains of influenza such as the one that brought the world to its knees in 1918.


Retroviruses such as HIV are thought to exist in patients as a "swarm" of millions of different strains all travelling in a pack; so intense is their mutation rate that, like snowflakes, no two HIV particles are alike.

Having said that, for a blood or saliva-borne virus to mutate into one that can travel by air requires a number of difficult hurdles. The virus would have to acquire a mutation that would allow it to access specialised cells in the airway, and then cause the coughing needed to propel virus particles to the next victim. If the virus is already spreading very well, like Ebola does, there is no evolutionary selection pressure to come up with these more elaborate mutations. The virus would also have to mutate its coat proteins to be tougher: it's not easy to survive for long in the air. But no matter how unlikely, I never say never when it comes to viruses.

To stop the virus spreading, the military try to blow up Cedar Creek. Would these extreme measures ever be resorted to in order to prevent the spread of viruses?
I'd like to think not!

Is there anything that particularly resonated with you about Outbreak?
There's a great scene where the public health scientist protagonist Dr Sam Daniels [played by Dustin Hoffman] is trying to convince his boss, Billy Ford, [Morgan Freeman] that they should send out a bulletin about the new virus as a matter of urgency. Ford replies, scathingly, that Daniels had raised a number of false alarms in the past, so there was no point in acting now. This really hit home: pandemic readiness and preparedness funding and departments have been slashed in recent years, undoubtedly because the powers-that-be were just not convinced that a "big one" really was coming, despite many experts cautioning that it was inevitable. Just as Daniels' warning falls on deaf ears, our real-life scientists have similarly been ignored. Having underestimated our microscopic enemies and failing to adequately prepare, we are now reaping the fruits of that neglect.

Contagion (2011)

VICE: The virus in Contagion starts when a pig eats a bit of banana that a bat was just eating. A virus that was already in the bat mixes with a pig virus, and they mutate into a new virus. The pig is slaughtered, a chef prepares the infected pig and then shakes hands with Gwyneth Paltrow's character without having washed his hands. She puts her hand in her mouth and becomes infected. Is this a plausible way for a virus to form?
Prof Deenan Pillay: Absolutely. This coronavirus probably came from animals mixing in food markets in China, where they have bats and other animals. If an animal is dead it is much more difficult for viruses to carry on living in them, so if there's not good food hygiene and lots of live animals, there's definitely the potential for a virus to spread.

The virus in Contagion kills around 20 to 30 percent of people who are infected. Is it possible that a virus could be this deadly, or is that quite a high number?
That is very possible. Coronavirus kills around 1 percent of people who contract it, but there have been other viruses in the past that have been much more deadly. The 2002 SARS virus didn't spread to many people, but that had a 9.5 percent chance of death. The MERS virus, which emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012, has a 30 to 40 percent chance of death.

In the film, the government is worried that if people hear about the virus the stock market will crash and tourism will stop, so they keep underplaying its seriousness. They even stop some scientists from working towards a cure in case they start leaking information about it to the press. Have there been cases where this has happened?
When the coronavirus first started to spread, there were people in some countries who wanted to hide what was going on, because they were worried about how it would impact tourism and the economy in general. China was very quiet about corona for the first couple of weeks, although when it became more of a danger they very quickly made it public knowledge.

At the end of the film, Dr Ally Hextall makes a vaccine and tests it on herself. Immediately after it cures her, they start rolling it out to people. Would this ever happen in real life?
At the moment, scientists are trying to narrow the "regulatory path" – that is, the steps that need to be taken in order to make a vaccine available to people. In the past, it might take five to ten years to develop a vaccine, but at the minute, with corona, they are trying to speed this process up to a year. Even so, this would be nothing like what you have just said. No vaccine that's cured one person would be rolled out to everybody without further tests, because what works for one person won't necessarily work for everyone else.

Scientists in Contagion discuss the "R-0 number", which is the number of people one infected person will spread the virus to. In the beginning it's slower, but towards the end it speeds up to no less than four. Is this possible?
In general we don't really see viruses getting more and more deadly. If we were to think of a virus as a person with consciousness, it wouldn't be in their interests to kill everyone immediately, because then it wouldn't be able to exist anymore. They need humans to live in. The viruses that are the most successful, that last the longest, are the ones that don't cause that much disease. So actually, most viruses get milder over time.


This article originally appeared on VICE UK.