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UC San Diego Professor Uses 'Contagion' Film To Teach Epidemiology

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film "Contagion" was so realistic in depicting a pandemic that a UC San Diego professor uses it to teach a class on epidemiology.
Warner Brothers
Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film "Contagion" was so realistic in depicting a pandemic that a UC San Diego professor uses it to teach a class on epidemiology.

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film lays blueprint for COVID-19

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film "Contagion" was so accurate in depicting a pandemic that UC San Diego professor Joel Wertheim uses it to teach a class on epidemiology.

Wertheim is a UC San Diego assistant professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health in the Department of Medicine.

"My training is in evolutionary biology," he explained. "When I look in the mirror, I see an evolutionary biologist staring back at me. But I've applied my training to understanding how viruses spread among people using the virus's genetic sequence to track how it moves from person to person and from place to place."

Every fall he uses the film "Contagion" as a jumping-off point for his class on epidemiology.

'Contagion' (2011) Trailer

"I remember when I first saw the movie, I was taken aback at how realistic it was. It seemed less like a three-act film and more like this instructive video on what a pandemic is going to look like," Wertheim said. "At the same time, it's remarkably entertaining. It was a lot different than the previous movies I had seen on pandemics, ones that were far more fanciful."

He uses clips from the film to highlight whatever topic he wants to cover. So the scene where Kate Winslet's character interviews a man about how his wife might have come down with the disease opens the class on contact tracing.

Films like "Contagion" and Max Brooks' book "World War Z" seem almost prescient in predicting something like the coronavirus yet that didn't seem to help prepare us for what is happening now.

"I do wish we had, as a society, had taken this threat a little more seriously," Wertheim noted. "Part of the reason that 'Contagion' was able to be so accurate is because it was based on a whole lot of other similar events that had happened, the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003. The viruses, like the Nipah Virus and Hendra, which are the virus in 'Contagion' was based on, that went from bats possibly to pigs then into humans or in the case of Hendra horses, and they didn't really go pandemic in that sense.

"But they clearly had the opportunity to and it was just sort of that one last step that sustained human-to-human transmission that was missing. I think it's a spectacular film, but it didn't require a lot of imagination to see this happening; to present it so elegantly took a lot of skill. But it wasn't out of left field. People asked me could you ever imagine something like this happening? And the answer is yes."

My full interview with Wertheim is now on my Cinema Junkie Podcast.