Re-watching Contagion in a Time of COVID-19

March 19, 2020

Re-watching Contagion in a Time of COVID-19

Nine years ago I celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary by going to the movies with my husband to see the movie Contagion. The psychological commentary implied by my choice of film is a topic for another blog post, on another blog. But the next day I very excitedly wrote my reaction to the sub-plot involving the Chinese herb forsythia. I thought it was worth a revisit now, given the epidemiological state of the world. 

Let me preface by saying a couple of things before you dive into the post you missed nine years ago. Contagion is actually a pretty good movie. I think I failed to say that the first time I wrote about it. The main plot of the movie, involving a pandemic virus, was well researched and experts in infectious disease were consulted during its production. They missed the part about toilet paper, but they were predictive of how the world would react to COVID-19. It's just the subplot about Chinese herbs that is wanting. Also, and this is really important, if you are super anxious about the current events of COVID-19, this is not the time to watch this movie. Watch a rom-com instead. Better yet, my new favorite genre, that I am calling action/ rom-com, has a lot to offer for escapism. I just watched Mr. Right over the weekend and am still smiling when I think of certain scenes. 

Now, let's step into the way back machine to September 17, 2011 ...

A deadly new respiratory virus hits the world with the menacing designation “MEV-1.” The initial symptoms of infection include sore throat, fever, severe headache, and mild cough, and these progress at an alarming pace to encephalitis, seizure, and death. While an assorted cast of seemingly tireless CDC, WHO, and other scientists work at break-neck speed to identify the virus, determine its origins, explain its pathogenesis, and develop, manufacture and distribute an effective vaccine (all in the space of 135 days), the rest of the world works itself into a panicked frenzy.

In a sea of despair marked by deserted grocery stores, city streets piled high with garbage, sports arenas converted to field hospitals, mass graves, and anarchy, the only glimmer of hope during those 135 days is an herb called Forsythia.

Even the Chinese official in Hong Kong assigned to work with the WHO epidemiologist mentions that in his rural village they tried giving his own mother Forsythia.

One anti-government, conspiracy-theory loving blogger, Alan Krumwiede, latches onto Forsythia, and lets his 12 million readers know of his personal experience of being saved by this herb. But little do his unsuspecting followers know that he’s behind the real conspiracy. Backed by an unnamed hedge fund, Alan uses his influence to profit on the suddenly increased demand for Forsythia to the tune of $4.5 million. Eventually he is arrested and charged with securities fraud and manslaughter. During the course of the investigation it’s revealed that he never actually was infected with the virus.

Wow — what a load of crap. Where to start pulling it apart?

Connoisseurs of traditional Chinese herbs may better recognize Forsythia by its Chinese pinyin designation, Lian Qiao. Described in the traditional terminology, Forsythia’s actions are to clear heat, relieve toxicity, and expel wind-heat. Since wind-heat is usually characterized by fever, sore throat, and headache, the writers probably thought this was a great herb choice for the plot.

The first obvious mistake in the treatment with Forsythia in this movie is with its use in that rural China village. Especially in that cultural context, Forsythia would not be used as a stand-alone herb, but rather as one of several herbs in a formula. At the very least, it would have been paired with Honeysuckle Flower. Using Forsythia without Honeysuckle is like putting out the salt shaker without the pepper shaker. And while it is possible, given the initial symptoms of infection, that a formula like Yin Qiao San — of which Forsythia is a chief ingredient — might be appropriate, the highly publicized mortality rate would likely prompt the prescription of a much stronger formula.

The next sizable plot hole is the idea that a hedge fund could make that much profit from one herb. Presumably these financial guys went out, bought all the Forsythia they could lay their hands on at rock bottom prices, and then resold it at greatly increased prices. Certainly during the SARS epidemic in 2003, both the demand and price for isatis root (Ban Lan Gen) shot up dramatically. In April of 2003 the New York Times reported:

“Hot herbal tea [Ban Lan Gen] available that prevents SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and cleans your system!” read a sign outside T’s Herbal Inc., on Hester Street in Chinatown. A store clerk said she sold about 40 cups at $1 each yesterday."

It’s true — in the absence of a highly contagious respiratory virus like SARS, that tea probably would have cost a lot less. But, it’s a long road from $40 worth of tea to $4.5 million. A road with lots and lots of distribution obstacles.

Besides, it’s not like using Forsythia to treat respiratory viruses is a concept invented by this hedge fund. Would they really have been able to buy that much of it before the price shot up? I am guessing the herb companies, who were watching the same CDC hosted press conferences, might have seen that increase in demand coming and raised their prices before the evil financial guys got there.

Finally, there’s the issue of the allegations hurled around during the blogger’s arrest. I’m no SEC expert, but I am pretty sure that in order to be charged with securities fraud in the United States, some actual exchange of securities in the United States has to happen. To the best of my knowledge there are no publicly traded companies in the U.S. that manufacture so much Forsythia that their stock price would be effected sufficiently.

And manslaughter? Really? Who exactly? Maybe all those people who took Forsythia but failed to get better. But it’s not like there was another treatment option available they didn’t take. Because, really, that was the point of the movie — there was no treatment available and, in the absence of an effective treatment, chaos spread just as fast and easily as the disease.

The movie did get one thing right though: "Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation."

Best quote of the movie.

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