'Contagion' at 10: How Matt Damon's pandemic thriller sounded the alarm a decade before COVID-19

·2 min read

A decade after its release, Contagion is even more terrifying, and popular, then it was when audiences first flocked to theaters to see the film in 2011. Steven Soderbergh's prescient 2011 pandemic thriller, starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet has arguably become the defining film of the COVID era, with viewers binging on the movie ever since the novel coronavirus began wreaking havoc across the globe in early 2020, killing more than 4.5 million people worldwide. In fact, during the early stages of the outbreak, Warner Bros. announced that the film had become the studio's second-most streamed property, following only its massively popular Harry Potter series.

But Contagion — which was released on Sept. 9, 2011 — was always meant as a warning shot, according to one of the film's scientific advisors, Dr. Tracey McNamara.

"There are many people who have been sounding the alarm for many, many years about the threat of emerging infectious diseases, almost all of which have been zoonotic [transmitted from animals to humans]," McNamara explained Yahoo Entertainment in a virtual interview (watch above) during the early months of the pandemic amid the Contagion renaissance. "Up until now, we have dodged the bullet. We haven't really been impacted by these pandemic changes. That has changed."

Kate Winslet in 'Contagion' (Warner Bros.)
Kate Winslet in Contagion. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

As a former chief pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, McNamara played a pivotal role in investigating 1999's West Nile virus outbreak. Currently a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University in California, McNamara says Contagion "showed how quickly the virus can spread. ... They showed you how a virus can spread, from the Chinese cook to Kate Winslet [who plays a CDC scientist who becomes infected]."

Soderberg and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns recruited advisors like McNamara and Dr. Ian Lipkin to conceptualize the film's terrifying and fast-acting MEV-1 virus, which wipes out large pockets of the globe, because they "wanted to create a film that was very much based in science," says McNamara. 

They discussed plausibility, i.e., what would or wouldn't happen in real life. McNamara helped nix an early idea that the film's virus would originate in race horses, since the animals could be vaccinated. Instead, the team shifted to the idea of Asian markets, where wild animals and domesticated animals are sold alongside each other and the presumptive source of the coronavirus.

"And I think that's why the movie rings so true," she says.

Too true for comfort.

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