The UK's Vaccine Plan Was Inspired By The Matt Damon Movie Contagion

To be fair, Matt Damon's not really in it much. Image credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

The UK is among the top three countries with the most vaccines on order per person, and there's a good chance that came down to the Health Secretary's decision one night to pop on pandemic film Contagion rather than Shrek.

While vaccines were still in development and trial stages, governments around the world rushed to buy up supplies. The US and the European Union bought the most overall at 1.2 billion doses and 1.6 billion respectively, but per capita, the UK and Canada have the most, with Canada having 9.6 doses per person, and the UK 5.5, according to analysis from the Guardian.

In an interview with radio station LBC, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that part of his decision to buy up so much supply – and earlier than many other countries – was because he had seen how things had panned out for Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Bryan Cranston (and the world) in the 2011 movie Contagion.

The movie follows a pandemic caused by a zoonotic virus – partly inspired by the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 – spread by respiratory droplets and contaminated objects, and how scientists and world leaders trying to stop it. Eventually, after quacks sell their own cures and conspiracy theorists do what conspiracy theorists do, scientists in the film are able to create a vaccine for the disease.

At this point, with supplies low, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awards vaccinations in a lottery, based on birth dates.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hancock would apparently constantly remind his team of the vaccine lottery at the conclusion of the film.

"He would keep referring to the end of the film," a former adviser to the department told Sky News. "He was always really aware from the very start, first that the vaccine was really important, second that when a vaccine was developed we would see an almighty global scramble for this thing."

Hancock had been told by advisors that he should get 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine but ended up opting to buy up 100 million doses. In the interview with LBC, he was asked whether this was down to what he learned from the movie.

“In the film, it shows that the moment of highest stress around the vaccine program is not in fact before it’s rolled out, when actually it’s the scientists and the manufacturers working together at pace, it’s afterwards when there is a huge row about order of priority," he told LBC.

“So not only in this country I insisted that we order enough for every adult to have their two doses but also we asked for that clinical advice on the prioritization very early and set it out in public I think for the first time in August or September so that there was no big row about the order of priority."

As far as movies to learn from go, you could do worse than Contagion, which was famously meticulously well researched and quite prescient, even if some people have been alarmed by the UK's vaccine policy being driven by the plot of a movie.

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"I wouldn’t say that film is my primary source of advice on this," Hancock said. "But what I can tell you is I knew when the vaccine came good, and I always had faith that it would, that the demand for it would be huge and we would need to be ready to vaccinate every adult in the country and I wasn’t going to settle for less.”

Whether the scramble for the world to buy up vaccines is the best method to end the pandemic remains to be seen, though epidemiologists have repeatedly warned that allowing the virus to spread in other parts of the world while richer countries vaccinate will merely cause the disease to mutate, prolonging the pandemic further.

"A global pandemic requires no less than a world effort to end it," the World Health Organisation and EU warned in a joint statement. "None of us will be safe until everyone is safe. Global access to coronavirus vaccines, tests, and treatments for everyone who needs them, anywhere, is the only way out."

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