“The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus.”—Joshua Lederberg (1925–2008), American bacterial geneticist, microbiologist, and Nobel laureate (quoted at the start of Outbreak)
In light of the current concern about the H1N1 virus (the virus formerly known as swine flu), I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a film treatment of a dangerous virus, 1995's Outbreak. The movie's release was timed to take advantage of the popularity of Richard Preston's bestselling book The Hot Zone, which described real outbreaks of the Ebola and Marburg viruses. In the movie, there are two outbreaks of the fictional “mutaba” virus—first in 1960s Africa, and then again in the small Northern California town of Cedar Creek in 'the present day.' The African outbreak was contained by firebombing the mercenary camp where it began, and the question of how to contain the current outbreak is central to the film. Dustin Hoffman plays Col. Sam Daniels, a military virologist, and Renee Russo plays Robby Keough, his ex-wife who has just begun a virology job at the Centers for Disease Control. The two work to contain the virus and protect the town from the military leaders who want to use the virus as a biological weapon. Col. Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Gen. McClintock (Donald Southerland) were part of the team that investigated the 1960s incident and are in charge of containing the present-day outbreak.
Though some special effects are not up to today's standards and the absence of cell phones clearly dates the film, there are some bits of good science worth noting. Early in the investigation of the mutaba virus, Col. Daniels looks at an electron micrograph of it and says: “You have to love its simplicity. It's one-billionth our size and it's beating us.” Since mutaba is fictional, the filmmakers used a picture of Ebola, but the size comparison is about right. Viruses are on the scale of tens to hundreds of nanometers, which makes them about a billionth of our size. 'Million,' 'billion,' and 'trillion' sound so similar to our ears that it is sometimes difficult to remember that one trillion is one million million.
In the early stages of the film, mutaba is mainly transmitted by very close contact: saliva transmission or blood-to-mucus membrane contact. A lab technician, Henry, is infected by a blood sample sprayed in his face by a centrifuge. There are both good and bad points in this scene. First, the danger of a centrifuge is real. When a few kilograms of mass spins at 3500 revolutions per minute, a tremendous amount of kinetic energy is involved. This is why most centrifuges cannot be opened while the tubes are still spinning, which is how the accident happens in the film. There certainly are older devices in labs without this safety feature, so I am willing to overlook the problem, but with the following caveat: Reaching into the spinning centrifuge would also do severe damage to Henry's fingers, not just break the tube and spray him with blood.
The virus can also be transmitted by airborne droplets of saliva, which is shown in one of the film's most memorable scenes. Henry and his girlfriend go to the State Theater with most of the townspeople of Cedar Creek (to see What's Up, Doc?, according to the marquee). Henry is symptomatic; he is sweating and coughing uncontrollably. The camera zooms in on drops of saliva from one cough as they float around the theater and are inhaled by someone else. This animation is pretty cool, and I suspect it is similar to what Vice President Biden was thinking of when he said he would recommend against air travel. (It is important to note that with regard to the current H1N1 virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not made any recommendation like this.)
Recent zombie films like 28 Days and I am Legend have posited viruses as the cause of the zombie transformation. As I noted in my review of I am Legend, a very common misunderstanding of how vaccines work with viral diseases often shows up in films. Once an individual is infected by a particular virus strain, a vaccine will not help treat or cure the disease. A vaccine helps prevent future infection, or minimizes the severity of a future infection by helping your body to recognize a virus when it appears again. Anti-viral drugs generally work by interfering with a virus' ability to replicate, and they can help, but they are not the miracle drug or “serum” appearing in Outbreak and other movies in which viruses are key plot devices.
I am sure most biologists who saw this movie noticed Capuchin monkeys were transplanted from Central and South America to Africa. Capuchins are frequently used in movies and television (Ross on Friends had a Capuchin named Marcel) because they are a convenient size and are often trained as helper monkeys. They are not native to Africa, however.
Finally, this movie provides a great opportunity to talk about the moral and social consequences of scientific information. Throughout the movie the balance between public health and civil liberties is questioned. The town of Cedar Creek is quarantined, preventing travel in or out, and that rule is maintained with deadly force. In the end, two Air Force pilots are forced to choose between destroying the whole town or potentially exposing the rest of the country to the virus. There is a substantial on-screen debate between Col. Ford and Gen. McClintock over the decision to destroy Cedar Creek. Col. Ford argues against the bombing in part because American citizens would be killed (in contrast to earlier bombings of infected sites in Africa.) This could lead to interesting classroom debates. Although H1N1 now appears unlikely to be as deadly as other influenza pandemics, public officials have had to make tough decisions with incomplete information.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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