"A pandemic will come:" Contagion, a 2018 prediction

Anna Shortt covers a short review of Contagion, a 2018 documentary predicting the spread of a deadly virus


For the first few minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking this 2018 documentary is a more recent production; its talks on quarantines, airport closures and the importance of handwashing are very en vogue. The giveaway is the thrill of foreboding which trickles down your spine as the camera pans to crowds of smiling, mask-less people.


Headed by mathematician Dr Hannah Fry, Contagion foretold of a future coronavirus heralding from south east Asia, which jumps from animals to humans, and has the potential of halting society as we know it. According to Dr Fry, the UK government regards such a virus as the country's greatest potential threat - even above terrorism and natural disasters. In spite of this, the area is criminally under researched, the data sets about how communities interact and the movements of the population simply do not exist on a large enough scale to make reliable data models. The show sets its own task of creating a data set by releasing an app called BBC Pandemic which replicates the infection abilities of a virus. Once they hit their target of 10,000 downloads from the British public, Dr Fry begins as patient zero and the simulation begins.


Back in 2018, the results should have been sobering. In current times, the figures seem almost amusingly familiar. With no measures implemented to contain the spread of the virus, immunity assumed to be impossible and an R number of 1.8, the “infected” population of the UK rises to approx. 43 million, with 886,877 fatalities in four months (the predicted minimum time to develop and deploy a vaccine). A second model assumes that the population wash their hands 5-10 times more than normal. This measure alone saves approximately 13 million from infection.


It seems however that science fell short of communicating the potential effects of such a virus to the general population. In an ironically amusing segment, Fry questions the public on what disaster killed the most people in the past century. The suggestions range from CO2 emissions, tsunamis and both world wars. Upon learning of the death of up to 100 million people, the common response is Spanish flu who? We appeared in 2018 to be woefully ignorant of coronaviruses and pandemics. When Boris Johnson announced in May the plans to ease lockdown restrictions, I assumed that this ‘R’ number was a new concept, something dreamed up in response to COVID-19. We spent my sister’s 15th birthday outside in the cold, socially distancing from family friends, under a gazebo on loan from the local mortuary (which I later learned had been patched up with spare body bags) in an effort to subdue this mysterious and new-fangled ‘R’. Yet Contagion tells of such a value with confidence and knowledge, and indeed of so many other concepts which were alien to me until this year.


The science in Contagion is not new, approximately the same as you would learn glancing over this evening’s headlines. What is fascinating about this program is learning that COVID-19 was not unprecedented but under researched and suffered from poor scientific communication. Two years ago, Fry asserted that this is a question of “when, not if” a pandemic hits, which begs the question of why we were not better prepared? How many lives could we have saved with improved scientific communication? How many lives has Dr Fry saved by the research conducted in Contagion?


Where to watch: the more risk averse will be able to access this on BBC iPlayer. Other UoB students can also watch for free on Box of Broadcast.


Watch it if: you are still confused as to why COVID-19 is different to the flu.


Give it a miss if: you are an epidemiologist.


Suggested further research: In a NumberPhile podcast entitled Crystal Balls and Coronavirus – with Hannah Fry, Dr fry critically evaluates this 2018 documentary from a 2020 perspective.


From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020

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