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Pop culture vs pandemic: Interest in pandemic films rises with COVID-19

If you're like me, before COVID-19 hit, the most you knew about the threat of viral outbreaks came from Hollywood. From zombies to aliens, the best pandemic information I got was from movies like "Pandemic."

Many others may feel the same way. Interest in movies about doomsdays, pandemics, epidemics, and related themes have surged alongside the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, according to what people are Googling.

Google trends indicate that searches for "pandemic movies" started slightly rising in December, when coronavirus concerns first emerged. By March, the numbers skyrocketed. Washington state ranks among the top 10 locations where the most people are searching for this phrase.

The results are quite similar for related phrases, such as "virus movies" or "epidemic movies." Washington was recently top of the list when it comes to interests in "doomsday movies."

There is, of course, a difference between Hollywood and reality. So far, Brad Pitt or Dustin Hoffman have not landed in a helicopter to save us from COVID-19.

When it comes to these two worlds, I like to turn to Dr. Tara Smith. She's an epidemiologist at Kent State who sometimes likes to explain the topic of zoonotic and infectious diseases within the framework of a zombie apocalypse -- so she speaks my language.

Running through some of my favorite pandemic films -- "World War Z," "Outbreak," and "Contagion" -- Dr. Smith offered a few points about the difference between the reality we face, and the films we watch.

Beware: "Contagion" is the most accurate portrayal

The 2011 film "Contagion" may be a little much during this time. Given current events, it now has an extra frightening layer. Not only because the premise is strikingly similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because the response to it is also a fair representation of how society would operate.

Here's what Dr. Smith had to say:

(Contagion) is probably the most on target. Of course, it is still fictionalized and there are still plenty of things that epidemiologists can nit pick. But I think it's more realistic than others.

It's also on the nose in that the virus came from a zoonotic origin -- from a bat to a pig to a person -- and then globe trotted to spread it ... those are the kinds of things that scientists have been warning about for 30 or 40 years. It's not too surprising that it's a scenario that they chose.

Viruses come from nature, not sensational conspiracies

Conspiracies are good for so many things -- plot lines, memes, fake news, and movies called "Conspiracy Theory."

In the 1995 film "Outbreak," Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr. discover that the virus they have been fighting was preserved by the military to be used as a biological weapon.

It doesn't take long on the internet to see plenty of other Hollywood-worthy plots. In fact, Snopes has published a page just for fact-checking coronavirus stories.

‘COVIDIOT’ and other ways the internet is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

Ya know, that this is a bio weapon ... there is no evidence of that. Some people suggest that not only 'Contagion' predicted this, but Dean Koontz. It was 'The Eyes of Darkness' that had a similar virus. Apparently the original (version) had a Russian laboratory that developed this, but some years later it was changed to a laboratory in Wuhan, and it was a coronavirus -- so it was Dean Koontz.

If the "news" you find on social media seems even a bit sensational, then it probably is just that and you should check it against more sources. Or just stick to verifiable sources rather than tweets and memes.

How important is "patient zero?"

In the 2013 movie "World War Z," Brad Pitt's character brings up "patient zero" more than once. The idea is that finding the origin of the zombie virus will help fight it.

It's more helpful in trying to prevent future epidemics. With [COVID-19], if we knew who the first person who had contact with this batch, or what animal it jumped from, it wouldn't help us now. We're well into the outbreak; it's spreading effectively human-to-human. So the ultimate origin of it doesn't matter so much for us responding to the current outbreak. But it does help us respond to future outbreaks.

For example, if we knew that a pangolin transmitted the disease to humans (a common animal in parts of China), then people could cease hunting them early on.

We've done that with Ebola. With Ebola, different outbreaks have been sparked by different events. In some cases, people have been infected by going into caves populated by bats. So they shut down tourism in those caves. Sometimes it's hunting wild animals ...

It's not so much that finding patient zero helps with current epidemics, it's really trying to prevent outbreaks in the future.

What is the best response to outbreaks and pandemics?

A small town is cut off and quarantined in "Outbreak." Israel walls itself off in "World War Z" to stop the disease from entering.

In the real world, at least in the current scenario, social distancing is the number one tactic to flatten the curve.

Rather than have a lot of people sick all at once ... the goal of social distancing is to spread that out. So that you can keep hospital beds free, you can keep ICU beds free, you have ventilators free for those who need them.

If they are able to minimize their participation in large groups where people can be exposed and spread the infection, it's important to do so. Those of us who can do that, to work to slow the spread, we should do what we can.

I'm a little disappointed with (the response), at least in our country for the current outbreak. We have gotten mixed messages, and it took a long time to roll out testing which is really critical to know where spread is occurring.

In past outbreaks, Obama appointed the Ebola czar, Ron Klain. He was the one who really organized management of the epidemic at the federal level ... And before that, with pandemic flu, it was a similar level of organization. With this, there seems to be a lot more chaos ... every state response has been different.

How come Matt Damon is immune? How can we develop vaccines?

In "Contagion," Matt Damon's character could not contract the disease. Dr. Smith explains there are two concepts at play here: immunity and genetic resistance.

Immunity is when you have already been exposed to a pathogen and your body makes antibodies against it, and the next time you see that pathogen, your body will respond really quickly and you won't get an active infection. That's the idea behind vaccinations.

There is also something called genetic resistance. All of these pathogens need receptors on your cells so that they can bind to them, especially for viruses so they can enter your cells, replicate, and be released to go do that in other cells. .. sometimes the receptors the virus uses, people may have slight mutations in those receptors that make it more difficult for the virus to bind to, or sometimes impossible. It's just a quirk of genetics.

Genetic resistance is what Matt Damon had. And if you're thinking that we should just genetically modify people to resist against viruses, it's not so easy. You could create other problems since those receptors are there for a reason.

Then there are antibodies.

They're trying this with COVID: Take antibodies from people who are immune, who have been exposed and have gotten better, and now have antibodies against the virus. They can take those, purify them out of the blood, and give them to other people so they will be protected against the virus ... that can be expensive, and you have to have enough people with the antibodies to withdraw them and pass them on to other people.

It's not something you can really scale up for the entire population, especially in a rapid manner.

Viruses do come from animals, and we are looking for them

In most films, viruses generally come from animals, crossing over to humans (unless you want to throw in "Andromeda Strain," in which case aliens gave it to us).

A lot of the them that are novel or emerging in human populations are zoonotic, so they come from animal species -- from rodents, to bats, to monkeys. So we've had programs looking for what are called viral hot spots -- places we know viruses have previously emerged from, such as avian influenza viruses we've been tracking for years.

Smith notes that there was previously a U.S. program called "PREDICT" that was formed in 2005 after the emergence of the H1N1 bird flu. It was charged with searching for viral threats before they become a problem. But PREDICT has not received funding support in recent years from the federal government. The New York Times reported that funding was cut in October 2019.

There have been scientists out there actively capturing bat species and swabbing them, and taking guano samples back to the lab to identify new viruses from bats and all sorts of animals to find out what is out there. And they would take blood samples from humans who live in the same area to see if there is evidence of that in the human population ... ideally, you would detect some of these viruses before they become established in human populations.

There was actually a study published a year or so ago that found a whole lot of bat coronaviruses, but nothing was really done with them, nothing was really acted on.

In movies, viruses always come from someplace else? Doesn't the U.S. have its own?

In "Outbreak," the virus comes from Africa. In "Contagion," the virus comes from Hong Kong. In "World War Z," it comes from South Korea ... maybe. Movies and headlines both reference the "Spanish flu" a lot when comparing the most nasty viruses.

We do [have our own]. The idea of infection coming from elsewhere is ancient. When syphilis was brought back from the new world to Europe, it broke out everywhere. The French would call it the Spanish disease, and the Spanish would call it the French disease ... with Spanish flu, the only reason it got called 'Spanish flu' was because they were the only country that was not censoring their radio output during World War I. Everyone knew Spain had an outbreak; not everyone knew that every other country had one as well.

We always like to blame other places. We've seen some politicians try to call this the 'Wuhan coronavirus' instead of the scientific name.

Dr. Smith notes that we still don't know where exactly the 1918 flu came from, but a military base in Kansas is one suspect.

We may have started that one. And in 2009, swine flu seemed to originate in Mexico, but some early cases were in San Diego, so we seemed to have exported that around the world. And we have cases of infection that don't go pandemic, but we have a hantavirus that was discovered in 1993 in the four corners region of the United States. That comes from rodents and causes pneumonia. We have Lyme disease bacterium. We have a virus called Heartland virus that was first discovered in Missouri. There's Bourbon virus, a similar tick-born virus.

I don't know if we've had many that go pandemic, but if you take all the viruses in China, they've only exported a handful.