There is a moment at the beginning of the film "Contagion", when health officials disclose what is known about the film's villain, a new virus that is sweeping the world and leaving bodies in its path.
For many watching in 2020, the scene comes a little too close to home.
In front of a whiteboard in a government office, a health researcher at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, played by Kate Winslet, analyzes the basics: the virus appears to spread through coughing and sneezing. The released particles can also land on surfaces like door handles and elevator buttons, which transmit the virus when people touch their faces, she says.
To prevent the spread of the pathogen, explains Winslet, officials need to determine its contagiousness, whether people without symptoms can infect others and who exactly is susceptible.
"So far, it seems that everyone has hands, mouth and nose," jokes a local health official.
Nine years after its release, “Contagion” became the film of the day when the world faces a very real disease: COVID-19, which has already infected more than 100,000 people in dozens of countries.
In late January, the 2011 thriller, which also features Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, rose in the top 10 iTunes movies and became one of the most popular movies on Amazon Prime and Google Play. While other pandemic films, including "Outbreak" and "12 Monkeys", have also enjoyed renewed favor in recent months, none seems to have an impact on viewers as much as "Contagion".
Probably because the film's screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, conducted months of in-depth research on the science of pandemics. He then recruited several well-established epidemiologists to develop a realistic storyline, edit the script and train the actors who would portray health officials, doctors and scientists.
"When I started talking to experts, everyone said, 'It's not a question of another pandemic, it's a question of when'," Burns said. "There is nothing strange about doing research".
In the midst of a growing public health crisis, the film's almost documentary accuracy has also become a source of alarm for some.
Some fans believe that the fictional destruction of the film and the high number of deaths are signs of what is to come and suggest that the authorities withhold information from the public. In the vacuum created by how little is known about this new virus, fear and misinformation have blossomed.
The film, however prescient, predicted that too.
Burns said "Contagion" was inspired by his father, who was often concerned that bird flu could become a human pandemic. Not wanting to make a conventional disaster film, Burns turned to Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who led the successful global eradication of smallpox.
At the time, around 2009, the public seemed to react strangely to the swine flu epidemic, Brilliant said. People acted almost disappointed that it was not as serious as health officials had warned, he said.
"We all started talking about the fact that modernity didn't know what a real pandemic was like," he said.
So they decided to create one.
"Contagion" tracks the arrival of a fictional virus called MEV-1, which sends officials from the CDC and the World Health Organization to prevent the outbreak and repress the public's growing fear and distrust. By the end of the film, chaos reigns and the number of deaths from the disease has reached at least 26 million.
The dummy virus originates from a bat – and then jumps to a pig and then to a person – which reflects the fact that 75% of new diseases in people come from animals, according to the CDC. These diseases include HIV, Ebola, SARS and now, COVID-19.
In the film, cutting down trees in Hong Kong displaces the bat and triggers the emergence of the virus, which shows how deforestation and the destruction of animal habitats make these jumps more likely. The rapid spread of the virus, in just a few hours from Hong Kong to Chicago and Minneapolis, reveals how the increase in global travel can quickly turn diseases into pandemics, sometimes becoming impossible to contain.
"It wouldn't be pure entertainment – in fact, there would be some public health messages," said Dr. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who served as the film's primary scientific advisor. "The idea was to make people aware of the fact that emerging diseases will continue to arise and resurface."
Lipkin, who has identified hundreds of new diseases throughout his career, shared with Burns his experiences since 2003 on the front lines of the SARS outbreak in Beijing. Elliott Gould's character in the film, a UC San Francisco scientist named Ian Sussman, is a nod to Lipkin.
Lipkin invited Winslet and actress Jennifer Ehle, who plays the researcher who is developing a vaccine for the virus, to her laboratory in Columbia to help them prepare for their roles. He developed a 3D model of the virus that rotates on the screen. He helped Burns during post-production to ensure that the sounds of the labyrinths and humming sounds of the fictional labs were accurate.
In one scene, Winslet explains the concept of nothing-R – which refers to how many people each sick person is likely to infect, essentially a measure of contagiousness. The scene brought an unstable epidemiological term to the general public, much to the delight of public health professors and biology professors who now show the film in their classes every year.
Watching the scene, Brilliant said, "I thought you died and went to heaven."
Burns said that during filming, Damon joked that they needed to increase their fear factor and add some zombies to make it a true Hollywood thriller. But Burns said it was clear to him and director Steven Soderbergh that the film was even more frightening because it was plausible, "instead of creating a monster that gives the audience that kind of distance from the story."
In the film "Contagion", a bat virus enters a pig and then an American played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who quickly dies as "zero patient" of a horrible global pandemic.
(Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.)
Which brings us to 2020, when there is apparently little distance between "Contagion" and real life. Paltrow, who (spoiler alert) is killed in the first 10 minutes of the film, recently posted a selfie on a plane's Instagram wearing a mask.
"I already participated in this film," she wrote. "Stay safe. Don't shake hands. Wash your hands often.
Paltrow is not the only one who makes these comparisons. Many went to Twitter to ask people to watch "Contagion" to find out what's really going on with COVID-19. A commenter wrote on the YouTube page where you can rent the movie for $ 3.99: “This movie must be FREE due to the Coronavirus! We must prepare!
Stephen Tegethoff, 28, said that watching "Contagion" recently with friends made him suspect that the virus would spread around the world more quickly than officials said.
"Honestly, it made me a little paranoid," said Tegethoff, who lives in Pittsburgh.
Burns predicted that a pandemic would provoke fear and distrust in the government. In addition to the characters of the scientists, the film features a freelance journalist played by Jude Law who questions the CDC's motives, seeks a false cure for the virus and gains fans as people seek answers after the death of their loved ones.
The portrait of the panic and scapegoat film is what Burns sees as most analogous to what is happening today, he said.
"Someone sent me to write on Instagram and accused me of being part of the Illuminati, and that I always knew it was coming," Burns said.
Most of the time, he said, he was pleased that people were taking lessons in public health from the film. But his research on the destructive social effects of pandemics worries him about widespread fear, which has led to stock market crashes, countries blaming themselves, as well as people who keep masks and other supplies, he said.
"What I hope the illustrated film is about is how misinformation and fear cause people to behave in ways that often make the problem worse or cause new problems," Burns said.
Burns said making the film showed him how people are connected by public health. For example, it is the responsibility of people with strong immune systems not to spread disease to their neighbors, who may be more fragile, he said.
That way, he expects a pandemic to bring people together when they realize they need each other to survive an outbreak, he said. But he knows this is unlikely.
He made a film about it. In the original poster for "Contagion", in red and with capital letters above the title, is the film's slogan: "Nothing spreads like fear".