‘Contagion’: Screenwriter Notes the Similarities Between the 2011 Movie and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak has now completely taken over many of our lives. In the midst of the craziness, movie-lovers are looking back to the 2011 movie Contagion. The screenwriter behind the film, Scott Z. Burns, took into account expert opinions and extensive public health research to write the movie. Recently, the writer gave his take on how the 2020 coronavirus pandemic is in many ways similar–and different–to the fictional virus that spreads across the world in Contagion.

A clinical support technician extracts viruses from swab samples in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary | Jane Barlow – WPA Pool/Getty Images

‘Contagion’ scribe points to similarities between the 2011 pandemic movie and the coronavirus outbreak

Burns recently told Variety what he thought about the American government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Contagion screenwriter said he was “terrified” when the Trump administration disbanded an essential pandemic task force.

Variety also asked Burns when he began “to realize that Contagion had so many parallels to coronavirus.”

“That’s a tricky question for me,” the screenwriter responded. He expanded on his thoughts:

What was really important to the scientists that I worked with and Steven was that what we did was their best guess at what would happen with a pandemic. We didn’t see it with SARS, because SARS burned out very quickly. But I think we would have probably gone down the same path if SARS, which is also a coronavirus, had gained this kind of foothold.

Contagion cast
Director Steven Soderbergh, Marion Cotillard and Matt Damon attend the Contagion premiere in 2011 | Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Burns also talked to Slate about the relationship between Contagion and the current pandemic. He said he wasn’t at all surprised by the connections; he always knew that eventually, his screenplay would be become a reality:

… It has been very strange to me, whether on social media or in conversations with friends, that people will say to me, ‘This is uncanny how similar it is.’ And I don’t find it to be that surprising, because the scientists I spoke to, and there were a lot of them, all said that this was a matter of when, not if.

Burns burns Trump for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic

“I wasn’t surprised that scientists were right,” Burns told Variety. “I have a lot of faith and confidence in science. There are other aspects of it that have been surprising.”

The Contagion screenwriter explained how his research and experience visiting the Center for Disease Control while writing the movie informed his view on coronavirus.

“I think in relation to real life, I had spent enough time at the CDC to know that there were really dedicated people there, waiting to deal with problems like this,” Burns told Variety. What surprised him?

Scott Z. Burns
Scott Z. Burns in 2013 | Dominique Charriau/WireImage

I hadn’t contemplated as a screenwriter what would happen in an administration where we defunded public health and defunded pandemic preparedness and defunded science, and then went one step further and discredited health officials who were trying to protect us. That was something, as a screenwriter, I never could have anticipated.

However, the Contagion screenwriter left Slate with a positive message. He has hope for the future of the pandemic. Burns told Slate:

I am encouraged by the ability of scientists to sort these things out, and I am grateful that the mortality rate of this virus is not like the one in the movie. I do believe that we will sort this out.