Top 10 Things Movies Get Factually Right and Wrong About Pandemics

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Top 10 Things Movies Get Factually Right and Wrong About Pandemics

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Martin Roseville
The truth is out there . . . sometimes. For this list, we'll be looking at the top 10 things movies get factually right and wrong about pandemics. Our countdown includes technology diagnoses, decontamination, government involvement and more!
Transcript

Top 10 Things Movies Get Factually Right and Wrong About Pandemics


The truth is out there . . . sometimes. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 things movies get factually right and wrong about pandemics.

For this list, we’ll be examining recurring medical and epidemiological concepts, in movies that feature pandemics of various sorts, in an effort to separate fact from fiction.

#10: Animals Can Spread Disease

RIGHT
In 2011’s “Contagion,” we see that the deadly MEV-1 virus originated as a genetic mix of pig and bat viruses. This true concept of a virus of animal origin was based on an actual pathogen called Nipah, which first began to spread in 1998. And this reality is more relevant than ever, since multiple outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics have sprung from animal viruses that eventually spread to humans. These are called zoonotic diseases. Maintaining good hygiene and social distancing are two strategies to protect us all from viruses when they spread out of control.

#9: Powered Air-Purifying Respirators Are Real

RIGHT
In 1995’s “Outbreak,” many of the characters in the film are seen wearing PAPRs, which is an acronym for Powered Air-Purifying Respirators. This is a common protective measure used by military, medical, and other official personnel in dealing with air-borne pollution and pathogens. Also called positive-pressure masks and blowers, the respirator is made up of a full-face mask or hood, attached to a blower, which acts by filtering any dangerous particles from the air. In fact, for more critical scenarios, there is also such a thing as a Racal suit, which (as the name implies) goes a step further by attaching the PAPR to a full suit.

#8: A Virus Can Choose Its Host

WRONG
In 2013’s “World War Z,” Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) goes on a harrowing mission to discover the source of a contagious virus that turns people into zombies, and also a possible vaccine. It isn’t long before he notices that the infected hosts of the virus do not attack the seriously injured or terminally ill, as they would make poor hosts for viral reproduction. Of course, in real life, viruses do not have the ability to think or reason or choose their new hosts, though of course each has evolved to only infect certain types of living beings rather than others.

#7: Technology Can Immediately Diagnose a Virus

WRONG
Near the beginning of 2007’s “I Am Legend,” Dr. Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) is escorting his wife and daughter to a helicopter that will take them out of Manhattan. However, they must first pass a virus-scanning checkpoint, which Neville’s wife first fails before being scanned again to reveal no virus. The main issue with this scene is that there is currently no scanner that can instantly definitively detect a viral infection. On the other hand, though, thermal scanners and special thermometers can near-instantly detect fevers, flagging a person who has any kind of elevated temperature which would indicate infection.

#6: Health Workers Need Specific Kinds of Protection

RIGHT
When caring for patients with the highly contagious virus in 2011’s “Contagion,” we can see health care workers donning highly protective equipment. This practise is absolutely accurate, as with the aforementioned PAPRs, and is essential to staying safe from dangerous microbes. Of course, in other parts of the film, other medical personnel wear nothing more than gloves and masks as a preventative measure. Sadly, this reality is also tragically all-too commonly accurate, as noted by Dr. Glenn Wortmann, head of infectious diseases at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. He explains that during a “large outbreak, it would be difficult for all health care workers to maintain appropriate infection prevention measures.” But they need protection. Badly.

#5: “Patient Zero” Is a Commonly Used Term

WRONG
2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” features the use of the term Patient Zero to refer to the first person identified to have the disease in the film, a term common in movies, and even on the news. This is more of a colloquial term; in the medical world, the proper term to refer to such a person would be an index case, or an index patient. Patient Zero was actually coined based on a misunderstanding of a 1984 study of HIV, where one of the first patients was labeled as “Patient O,” the letter O standing for “Out of California.” The O was later misunderstood to be the numeral 0.

#4: Governments Use Viruses as Biological Weapons

WRONG
Many films, like 1995’s “Outbreak,” feature governments or militaries using, or hoping to use viruses as a form of biological warfare. While this is a very real concern in the modern age, in 1972, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons was signed by many of the world’s superpowers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and (at the time) the Soviet Union. As of 2018, 182 countries ratified the treaty, which bans the “development, production, and stockpiling of microbes of their poisonous products” for hostile reasons. But vigilance is always essential across the world.

#3: Robotic Labs Are Used by Scientists

RIGHT
In 2002’s “Resident Evil,” we can see several glimpses of laboratories with functioning robotic tools. Although not much else in the film can be claimed as realistic, and the very idea may seem like science fiction, this part of the movie is quite real. In fact, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States uses robotic machinery, and robots can even be guided to perform certain types of surgeries. But we can certainly hope that they won’t one day in the future become sentient and enslave us. That would be bad.

#2: Decontamination Is a Real Process

RIGHT
Decontamination is definitely a real thing, and a necessity. And movies, thankfully, generally acknowledge this, though some haven’t portrayed decontamination in quite the right way. For example, in 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain,” the process is both quite frightening and inaccurate. There is no process of decontamination that involves burning the outer epithelial layer of the skin, which would in essence be an excruciating, full-body sunburn. Other films, like 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” feature individuals decontaminating before entering an infected area, when in reality, those exiting an infected area would decontaminate themselves before re-entering the safe area. And a chemical shower is often the preferred method of decontamination rather than ambiguous-looking fog, as is done in the film.

#1: The Amount of Time It Takes to Find a Cure

WRONG
As we’ve seen, “Contagion” hit a lot of home runs in terms of factual accuracy. Writer Scott Z. Burns consulted medical specialists in creating the story, while the producers were able to consult representatives from the World Health Organization. In spite of the research, however, the sheer speed with which the film’s protagonists develop a vaccine is too good to be true. In real life, creating safe and effective vaccines takes much time and effort. In fact, according to the former acting director of the CDC, Dr. Richard Besser: “The rapid creation of a vaccine in ‘Contagion’ can contribute to the false expectation of what science can do during a public health crisis.”
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