If, like those of us willing to lean into the chasm of doom that is coronavirus, you’ve watched Contagion in the last few months, you might also have noticed that the 2020 pandemic could almost be accused of plagiarizing the 2011 fictional blockbuster. The storyline seems to tick along as a near mirror image to the sequence of events on Earth under Covid-19.
I’d offer a spoiler warning at this point but given we’re living the storyline right now I’m not sure any of the following will come as a surprise. In Contagion, the virus is traced to bats much like SARS-CoV-2 and also presents as a respiratory illness that spreads on surfaces (cue scene where infected man touches every available pole on a bus before getting off). The response to the outbreak centers heavily around the reproduction rate (R number) of the virus and an enthusiastic epidemiologist that decides to inject herself with a not-yet-approved vaccine.
True to its copycat form, that final point became a part of the Covid-19 storyline a couple of months ago as a scientist in China decided to inject not just herself but also six people on her team with a vaccine that hadn't passed animal testing. The surprising move unfolded in March in a video on China's People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Webio channel, which has since been taken down. However, stills captured from the footage posted on Twitter reportedly show a world-renowned epidemiologist and her team receiving the novel vaccine.
At the time, Dr Chen Wei and her research team had been working for over a month at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory with the highest biosafety classification. As well as rushing to develop a vaccine, Chen’s team have contributed to research surrounding treatments including plasma therapy and repurposing a nasal spray with hopes of boosting immunity to the virus.
“We are doing all we can to put the recombinant vaccine that we are developing into clinical application," she said in an interview with China’s state-run television station last Tuesday, according to a report on Vice. “We must strive to bring the vaccine we are working on to clinical trial and application, providing strong technical support for winning this battle.”
Since the virus was first sequenced by a lab in China in January, centers around the world have been trying to rush for a safe and effective vaccine but none yet have been deemed ready for release to the public. The extreme move of Dr Wei and her team comes in the face of official advice, which has historically advised against such moves when testing vaccinations, even if it did play out a treat in Contagion.
Investigations into a possible vaccine continue at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with human trials having begun in April testing on volunteers as part of a series of randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled trials of the vaccine conducted in Jiaozuo, Henan Province. Dr Wei was reported to have said that initial results appeared positive, however it is still too early to predict if the vaccine will be approved for release to the wider population.