It is a problem that is not lost on researchers. In the catchily-titled Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes, the writers point out that cinema has historically regarded most areas of medicine as “repetitive” and “boring”. I say most areas, because of course there is an exception: pandemics. These, they write, “seem to be the only specialty that can offer cinema the required suspense”.
The paper is well worth a read – if only for the snarky film reviews. Operation Delta Force ignores scientific accuracy to focus on “poorly executed action”, whilst the writers of Mission Impossible 2 are lambasted for their “ignorance of Greek mythology, as well as clinical microbiology” – not the kind of review you find on Rotten Tomatoes very often.
The paper makes a serious point, however. Most films, it says, were “inaccurate”, no matter how sincere the efforts. Hardly a shock, I know, but it points out that the divide between science and fiction is blurred in many people’s minds, with the result that public opinion can also become clouded. Perhaps realising that the idea of Hollywood censorship might be unpopular, they suggest that this may not be a feasible step. Instead, they suggest that efforts toward communicating risks and informing the general public should be stepped up, perhaps by letting everyone know why your work on virulent flu strains could potentially prevent – rather than cause – a future pandemic
And that is just where we are now.
One of the leading signatories to the letter announcing the “pause” – Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical College in the Netherlands – told me: “In the US, the debate has been irrational. We’ve seen too little involvement from infectious disease specialists, but plenty from biosecurity specialists, who are not necessarily on top of this type of research. The reason for taking the 60 day pause is for us to communicate better.”
I hope he is right, and they can communicate better. But I suspect the outcome will be coloured as much by what all involved fear as by what they say. And if there is one thing that can spread faster than a pandemic, it is fear.