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The Ending Of Contagion Explained

As more and more people around the world go into self-isolation and quarantine due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, there has been an understandable surge in interest in pandemic movies. There have been a few good ones over the years, like the '90s disaster flick Outbreak and the intelligent take on the zombie genre 28 Days Later, but few seem to be capturing the public's attention right now quite as much as Steven Soderbergh's 2011 ensemble thriller Contagion. At the time of this writing, the movie is #2 on iTunes' rental charts, only bested by Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker. Not bad for a movie that came out almost a decade ago.

For many, the draw to Contagion as their viral-outbreak movie du jour likely has a lot to do with how realistic the film set out to be. Instead of delivering outlandish Hollywood thrills, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns wanted to create a realistic film that drew from the experiences of actual people who dealt with pandemics. Burns interviewed epidemiologists, virologists, and other experts in an attempt to create a fictional plague that would feel true to life. We can safely say that he did a terrifyingly good job.

Given how close to reality Contagion often feels, there's a lot of interest in how this fictional worldwide outbreak comes to an end. So let's take a look at how Soderbergh's film concludes.

How does the epidemic begin in Contagion?

Contagion begins on day two of a global pandemic caused by a fictional viral infection eventually dubbed MEV-1. The events of the film kick off when Minneapolis-based business executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) travels to Hong Kong and Macau for work and becomes infected with the novel virus before traveling back to the U.S. After Beth dies of the illness and her teenage son passes a few days later, there are already dozens of other MEV-1 around the world. By the time scientists realize what's going on, it has already spread out of control.

The ensemble film primarily focuses on the doctors and scientists working to understand and contain the viral outbreak. Doctors Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) of the Centers for Disease Control attempt to reduce the spread of MEV-1 within the U.S. and work to develop a vaccine, while Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization travels to Hong Kong in an attempt to track down the origins of the virus and learn how it was able to spread out from southeast Asia and infect the rest of the world.

How long does it take the scientists to develop a vaccine in Contagion?

After tracking Beth Emhoff's movements during her trip to Asia, Dr. Orantes is able to determine on day 14 of the pandemic that Beth was not only the index case (or patient zero) of the outbreak in the U.S., but also of the virus itself. However, at the CDC, the novel nature of the virus has made it difficult to study.

By day 21, Dr. Hextall sees evidence that the virus is mutating and becoming even more deadly. Riots over medication, looted grocery stores, and empty, trash-filled streets have become the norm, and Dr. Hextall races against the clock to unlock the code to a vaccine that will effectively stop the virus without first killing the host. Finally, on day 29, she cracks it and develops a working vaccine. In order to fast-track availability of her new vaccine, Dr. Hextall conducts the first human test on herself — injecting it into her own leg before going to visit her father, who is infected with MEV-1, in the hospital to test its effectiveness.

The revelation in the final moments of Contagion

With a vaccine developed, the MEV-1 outbreak begins to wane on day 135. Dr. Cheever declares Dr. Hextall a hero, but she rejects the label and the spotlight that it would bring. Instead, we see Dr. Hextall placing a sample of her vaccine in cold storage along with the vaccines for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome caused by a strain of coronavirus) and H1N1 (a subtype of the influenza A virus also known as "swine flu"). She looks back at her work with a content smile and the knowledge that her work helped save the lives of millions.

In the final scene of Contagion, we get a flashback that solves the mystery of how the virus originated. Earlier in the film, Dr. Hextall notes that the MEV-1 virus contains strains of both bat and pig DNA, and in the flashback, we see a colony of bats disturbed from a tree that's being bulldozed by a truck from the very company that Beth Emhoff worked for. While in flight, one of the bats drops a piece of banana, which came in contact with the virus, in a nearby pig farm. A pig eats the piece of banana, and is later sold and butchered. We later see the pig being prepared in the kitchen of a fancy casino in Macau. After handling the infected animal, the chef is summoned away from his work. He heads out of the kitchen without washing up and poses for a photo, complete with a handshake, with Beth. This, we learn, was day one.