Stephen McGinty: Nature is scarier than any movie

Jude Law in the 2011 film Contagion.  Picture: Kobal Collection
Jude Law in the 2011 film Contagion. Picture: Kobal Collection
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THE plane sat on the tarmac of the airport runway with the engines shut down, but inside nobody stirred. There was no response to calls made from air traffic control; it was as if the transatlantic passenger jet had landed on automatic pilot.

The plane was quickly sealed off and surrounded by government agents and the first team to venture inside wore biohazard suits and were greeted by a chilling sight: row after row of passengers, silent and inert, killed by an unknown virus.

The opening episode of The Strain, the new US TV series developed by Guillermo del Toro, the director behind Pan’s Labyrinth, makes for disturbing viewing but cannot claim to be ripped from the headlines as the virus is later revealed to be the chiller first diagnosed in print by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Yet the idea of that long, cylindrical, steel tube that hurls us from one continent to another at 39,000ft becoming a flying coffin is all too pertinent, as the World Health Organisation yesterday declared a state of emergency over the world’s worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

One can only imagine the levels of concern and distress that are destined to take place at a height of seven miles when passengers from the affected countries begin to cough and splutter, regardless of how innocuous their affliction may later prove to be. Fear is contagious, and there is much to be fearful of about this virus, which, under an electron microscope, resembles a brain attached to a piece of spaghetti.

Yesterday the United Nations described the current crisis as an “extraordinary event”. The outbreak that has so far killed 930 people in the West African states of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone has now eclipsed the original outbreak in 1976, which led to the discovery and christening of the virus after the Ebola river that runs near the village of Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of early cases. As a haemorrhagic disease, Ebola was first thought to have evolved among gorillas, as the first victims back in the 1970s included the mammals among their diet. However, it is now known to be carried by bats who drool or defecate on food, which is then consumed by humans. The current outbreak has been traced to the village of Gueckedou in Guinea, where bat hunting is common.

Once a person is contaminat­ed, symptoms emerge after eight to ten days, beginning with fever, muscle pain and a sore throat, which then evolves to vomiting and diarrhoea. In more than 50 per cent of cases, the victim then begins to bleed both internally and externally from the nose, eyes and ears and under the skin. Death occurs as a consequence of blood vessels leaking, which causes a drop in blood pressure, leading to the failure of the heart, liver, kidneys and other vital organs.

The current outbreak kills 
55 per cent of those afflicted. One saving grace is that the disease is not airborne, like flu, but it can survive on surfaces such as a latex glove or needle and is passed from human to human by blood, vomit or saliva getting into another person’s eyes, nose or mouth.

Popular culture has contributed considerably to our concerns about pandemics. Michael Crichton was a medical student who each summer, instead of taking a bar job, settled down at his typewriter to bang out pulp novels, and his breakthrough came when he published The Andromeda Strain, a novel written as a compilation of emotionless reports that detailed the deadly outbreak in a small Californian town of a virus from space. In 1971, the book begat a Hollywood movie, whose success begat, in turn, one of the classic 1970s disaster movies and one of the bleakest, The Cassandra Crossing, in which a form of the bubonic plaque breaks out on a European train which the authorities then seal and cynically run over a rickety bridge, sending hundreds of passengers to their deaths. In 1978, Stephen King wrote what many fans consider their favourite novel, The Stand, in which the American population is almost entirely wiped out by the release of a contagious biochemical weapon, then, in the barren wasteland that remains, two tribes of good and evil battle for supremacy.

King, in turn, provided a cover quote for the New Yorker journalist Richard Preston’s non-fiction bestseller The Hot Zone, which was one of the most popular books of 1995 and which detailed the rise of viruses such as Ebola, as well as detailing a previously unknown incident when an Ebola-type virus swept through the monkey population at a research laboratory in Washington and the secret 
18-day fight to contain it. Like a virus, The Hot Zone then spread to the cinema and inspired the movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman as the heroic scientist who seeks to save a small town put under military curfew following a lethal outbreak.

Yet the most chilling and accurate movie about a bio-disaster was Contagion (2011), which, in the early scenes, stated the obvious that no-one was safe by swiftly killing off Gwyneth Paltrow. By the end, Kate Winslet, along with millions of others around the world, are dead from a Sars-like virus which leaps from animals to humans and quickly becomes airborne. What is the appeal of these books and movies? In one way, they are genuine horror stories, as the victims are killed in an ugly manner by an unseen assassin. The killer could be in the room and we wouldn’t even know it until it is too late.

If history has taught us anything it is that eventually we in the West will have to contend with a deadly new pandemic. Like an asteroid strike, it is not a case of if but when, and pandemics arrive with far, far greater frequency. This year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, but in four years, it will be a century since Spanish flu gripped the world and killed between 50 million and 100 million people across the globe. Trying to imagine such a vast number is almost impossible. In 1957-8, Asian flu killed roughly two million people, and a decade later, another flu outbreak killed one million. In the 21st century, the H1N1 flu pandemic that gripped over the winter of 2009-10 killed more than 14,000 people worldwide. These are only the pandemics of the past 100 years, without having to reach back into the grim outbreaks of the Black Death in 14th century and again in the 17th century.

Yet I wonder if we fear this latest threat far more than we should? To date, less than 5,000 people have been killed by Ebola since 1976 and, while each death is a tragedy for the individual and their family, it is such a small number when compared to the millions who have died over the same period from Aids. Of course, thanks to modern drugs, which make a difference for those with access to them – which, tragically, excludes so many millions of Africans – HIV has moved from a death sentence to a chronic condition. The time frame is also much greater – it could take years to die from HIV, while Ebola can kill in days. Yet a death is a death, and while there is no reason to be complacent, there is cause for confidence that scientific advances mean the development of cures and vaccines should be possible if, that is, there is the will. Sadly for the victims of Ebola, there is little appetite to invest tens of millions in developing a vaccine for a disease that inflicts so few people – comparatively speaking – resident in the poorest nations in the world.

The American doctors and nurse who courageously worked with the victims only to succumb to the virus themselves have, on their return to the United States, been given an experimental drug, Zmapp, which uses uniquely manufactured proteins to prevent Ebola from infecting new cells, and the response has, so far, been remarkable. Within hours, the doctor was up and walking and able to shower. Medical ethicists may question whether untested drugs should be administered to patients when the long-term consequences are unclear, but a drowning man hauled onboard doesn’t care if the ship might sink in the future.

Let us hope the current outbreak will quickly be brought under control, as there are few images as disturbing as medical teams in masks and face shields and patients in clear plastic gurneys. Nature is the author of the scariest horror of all.