Stories about viruses seem to be popular at the movies, but how realistic are they?
"Inferno," a movie based on the popular book series by Dan Brown, shows Tom Hanks fighting to stop the release of a new plague, with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO). I didn't see the movie, and apparently not many other people did either, but these stories often lead viewers to think: could this actually happen?
This week on NPR, journalists interviewed leading public health experts, Dr. Stephen Morse and Dr. Alan Schmaljohn, to figure out if "Inferno" was all pseudo-science.
One of the key mistakes that the movie makes is regarding the timeline for the spread of the virus. As the experts point out, even the most contagious viruses we know of cannot be spread around the world in 4-7 days, killing 50% of the population (as in the movie). Additionally, they point out that if a virus is especially deadly, it may not be a particularly good candidate for quick transmission. After all, when an infected person dies, it's harder for them to cough around healthy people or provide other transmission pathways for the virus to be spread further. The transmission of the virus also depends on how quickly public health specialists recognize and act upon emerging viruses.
While they acknowledge that under perfect circumstances, it could be possible for a virus to spread as quickly as in the movie, it's highly unlikely. Additionally, science doesn't seem to be at the point where biological weapons and laboratory manufactured pathogens are more threatening than emerging viruses in the wild. The "Inferno" virus has been debunked.