Steven’s Science in Cinema: Contagion and Outbreak and the Science of Cinematic Disease


In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are interested in the films Contagion (2011), directed by Steven Soderbergh, and Outbreak (1995), directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Both movies represent either an outbreak or pandemic, much like the scenario we are going through right now. Contagion is obviously a pandemic scenario, so it is more similar than Outbreak to COVID-19. The film Outbreak, as the title indicates, depicts an outbreak scenario. 

As I am reviewing two movies, I will split this review up into two sections. For further clarification, I will still make note between the two movies as a cross-reference. I also want to note that most of the flaws in the movies were not intrinsically in the plot. Most of the flaws seemed to be in the actor’s presentation or mannerisms while in specific settings. 

Contagion (2011)

When I originally watched this movie, I thought that this movie was a great representation of a pandemic! This would make sense since this film was inspired by the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.  Due to the amazing accuracy of this movie, I will review the film in more depth than Outbreak

  • The Speed of global transmission: Contagion could not have been more spot on! The depicted virus in the movie spread like a wildfire. Similarly to COVID-19, this virus started in China and quickly spread to the rest of the world. 
  • The Virus: The virus in this film, MEV-1, was based off of a virus, NIPAH Virus that commonly has outbreaks in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India. The symptoms of MEV-1 correlate directly with those of NIPAH virus. The fatality rate of NIPAH virus lingers around 50-70%! The reason why this virus isn’t as nasty as COVID-19 is because NIPAH is not as contagious. Whereas COVID-19 is highly contagious. MEV-1, the fictional virus, is as highly contagious as COVID-19 and still holds the mortality rate of NIPAH of about 20%. It’s one nasty virus with a combination of two scary traits! 
  • Incubation period: This is a characteristic of pathogens that seems to be always misrepresented in films. An incubation period is the time between the first exposure of the pathogen and when the first symptoms appear. MEV-1 presents symptoms almost immediately, and this is never the case with pathogens. A short incubation period can range from 6-48 hours, but most pathogens will be days before the first symptoms show. MEV-1 seems to have an incubation period that is even shorter than this.
  • Post-Mortem Analysis: Two pathologists were investigating Gwyneth Paltrow’s death.  They investigate her brain and upon revealing it and taking a quick glance, one of the pathologists immediately states that the other should back up and call everyone. In reality, this would never occur. There would have to be tests and confirmations. There was an earlier mention to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain tissue), and this is a startling sight to see but it isn’t one worth avoiding running tests. 
  • The Ro discussion: In this film, a team of scientists and doctors discussing the Ro of MEV-1. Ro, or the basic reproduction number,  refers to how many individuals one infected victim is expected to pass on the disease to. During their discussion they use proper terminology of fomites, which is transmitted through contact. The R0 is definitely information that will be discussed in one of these meetings. On top of that, the lack of knowledge about the Ro is extremely realistic. COVID-19 is a great example of this. 
  • CDC & WHO meetings: The meetings about MEV-1 happened almost immediately (five days after the outbreak), and as we have seen with COVID-19, similar talks took a little longer to occur. This is not to attack the CDC or WHO because MEV-1 was much more severe and presented symptoms immediately. The combination of these two traits would catch the two health organizations eyes a lot quicker than something like COVID-19 would. 
  • Visual representation of Virus: Virus must attach to their host cells prior to infection. This whole scene is amazing. The terminology used here is phenomenal. The idea of a receptor protein found only on the cells of the respiratory or central nervous system, and the virus attaches in a lock and key mechanism. A receptor protein is just a protein strand that is attached to the cell membrane. The layman’s purpose of these proteins are to have specific substances attached to it. A lock and key mechanism is when a substance (in this case a virus protein that is attached to the virus) acts as a key and a receptor protein on the cells’ surface acts as a lock. It will fit snugly into this protein. The depiction of the proteins in this scene is extremely accurate to what it would actually look like if someone were to depict the interaction between these two proteins. This uses this terminology well, but the issue of how they obtained this information is the problem. Surface proteins are extremely hard to identify, and the mechanism by which the proteins work is even more difficult to identify.
The virus


  • The information presented in this scene was obtained seven days after the initial viral recognition. This would take several days if not months to figure out the mechanism much less the structure of the protein. On top of that this virus would be much too dangerous to work with in order to attain this information. In this same scene, they use the term crossover events, but the actual term they are referring to is spillover events. In pathology, spillover refers to when one infectious agent, like a virus, spreads to a different population/species than its original. In the case of Contagion, it goes from pig to human. 


  • The spread: The transmission depicted in this movie is flawless. As we are all well aware, an extremely contagious disease can spread like wildfire. That is exactly what is shown in this movie. Even more so, this movie emphasizes how easily something can spread from one human to another by not being conscious about your sanitization. I am not encouraging someone to become a germaphobe, but the world around us is covered in germs. In the movie, this whole pandemic started basically because a chef touched a contaminated carcass and didn’t wash his hands when he went to go introduce himself to a guest. This can easily be reality. It really only takes just this to spread a disease and think of how many people you would normally come in contact with. They would all get the disease too if you shook their hand or touched a similar surface as them. Now, the exposed person would have to touch around their eyes, mouth, and nose in order to possibly become infected, but it is extremely real. The practices to prevent this spread were even depicted accurately in this film. The authorities stated that staying at home, no handshakes, and washing your hands frequently were all ways to prevent the spread of MEV-1. Does this sound familiar?


  • The Response: Sadly, we have all have seen how the panic of COVID-19 has swept across the nation. People are panic buying and even fighting in stores to obtain the last of a good. Ironically, the same response happened in this film. At the time, I would have thought that this was an exaggeration, but now after seeing how the public has responded I see that it is all too true. 



This movie was amazing with its depiction of a pandemic. It was exaggerated from our current reality because MEV-1 had a 20% mortality rate while COVID-19 only has a 3% mortality rate, but this doesn’t mean that a highly lethal and contagious pathogen like MEV-1 can’t cause a pandemic similar to the movie. 

“In order to become sick, you have to first come in contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come in contact with a rumor” – Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever


Outbreak (1995)

  • The opening laboratory scene is a mixed bag of emotions for me. I see the terminology of BSL1, BSL2, BSL3, and BSL4. The different labs were sorted into their different BSL level. BSL stands for biosafety level. Each level is progressively more dangerous, with BSL4 being the most dangerous. The interesting part was to see the different types of PPE (personal protective equipment) used at each level. BSL1-2 were both fine. There were some minor issues with the doors being open and some of the scientists not wearing gloves. In general, I wouldn’t want a door open if you are working with a pathogen regardless of the BSL. This poses the risk of something flowing in or out of the lab. At a level of BSL2 and up, most scientists would be working in a fume hood. This was not depicted at any level. At BSL3, anyone in the lab would be required to wear a coverall, sometimes a face shield, and sometimes a respirator. In this scene, some of the workers were wearing the proper PPE, and one even went to fix her hair while wearing the gloves she worked with. This should never occur in the lab, especially at a BSL3. Now, the BSL4 PPE for the time was extremely accurate. It is the same gear that one might have found in a lab during the late 1970s. 
  • Decontamination: One weird thing that most movies tend to get wrong is that you always see individuals going through a decontamination process before entering a quarantined zone and sometimes never as they are leaving. Outbreak really shows many flaws in this part. There are scenes where people walk in and out of quarantined rooms in hospitals without decontaminating. The main doctor at the outbreak hospital walks out of a quarantine room and down a non-quarantine hallway in order to investigate if a patient in a separate room (who wasn’t quarantined) was infected with the same pathogen. Well, I hate to break it to that doctor, but if they weren’t exposed to it before… they are exposed now. Not only did he expose that patient to anything that was on his suit, but he also exposed the entire hallway and every other person in the hallway/room that he walked through. This scene was an absolute mess. He would have known better. Also, him walking over to the patient would be meaningless. A test would have been required in order to confirm if the patient was infected or not.
  • The virus: The virus in this movie is called Motaba, It is very similar to the Ebola virus. The main difference between these two viruses is that Motaba is airborne while Ebola is not. For a movie that follows a doctor trying to find a cure for Motaba, very little time was spent discussing any information about it other than that it is airborne. 
  •  The mutations: One ugly flaw in this movie occurs when one of the scientists working to find a cure for Motaba is observing it under a microscope then makes the statement that it has mutated as if he saw the virus mutate. This is impossible, mutations are at a genomic level. To look at a virus and just say that it has mutated is completely unrealistic on several different levels, but the main one being that human eyes cannot see as far down to the genomic level. Viruses are already extremely difficult to see with the use of a microscope, except for the virus family Poxviridae. He would have to do some genomic sequencing in order to figure this out.
  • The vector: Vectors refer to the carrier of a pathogen that does not get infected itself but will spread the infection (ex: mosquitoes and malaria). The vector for Motaba was a capuchin or Cebus monkey. The sad part about this is that these monkeys are a South American species and would not be found in Africa, which is where it was found throughout the film.                                      
The Monkey
  • The solution: This is the worst part of this movie, almost on par with all of the explosions in a disease movie. The scientists manage to extract enough plasma from a monkey in order to save thousands of people. The plasma can be used in plasma therapy or what I would assume to be a similar method of treatment. Plasma therapy refers to the transfer of plasma from an individual with the proper immunity that will fight off a pathogen to an individual who does not have this immunity in hopes that it will help the individual fight off the pathogen. In order to have enough plasma for thousands of individuals, you would need thousands of monkeys. If this didn’t work, they would have probably resorted to the other option that they used throughout the film…explode it. 


Contagion is an amazing depiction of an outbreak like scenario, there were very few flaws shown throughout the movie. It even represented the strength of misinformation and how prominent that misinformation is spread during a pandemic. Contagion could not have portrayed the panic any better. It also could not have portrayed the serious risk that healthcare professionals are exposing themselves to during a pandemic. 


Outbreak, on the other hand, had very little scientific backing to it. It seems like they really tried at first when showing the different BSLs, and I was excited because it is typically something that is unknown about pathogen labs. However, this movie, aside from the previous point, was coated with scientific inaccuracies. I guess the main thing that they got correct was that in order to solve a quarantine infection issue you can always just blow it up, maybe. 

Since everyone has been hearing about COVID-19 for the past two weeks all over the media, including in this blog, I think it might be a good refresher to have a film not covering biology or pathology for a little bit. My next blog will cover the science, or rather the inaccurate science, found in the sci-fi film Armageddon (1998), directed by Michael Bay.

Steven’s Bio:

Steven Zeko
Steven Zeko

Steven Zeko is a senior at Lewis University, working towards a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education. Currently, he is involved in immunology research and Chem-ED research. Following his education, Steven wants to teach Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at a high school level. In his free time, Steven enjoys playing video games, reading, playing golf, and watching movies. He is typically reading two books at any given time, with one book being a science book and the other being any good book that he can find. Currently, Steven is reading Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Educated by Tara Westover. His fascination with science began when he was a kid by watching the works of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both being wonderful STEM educators, he hopes to invoke their ability to energize a crowd just by educating people about science.


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