Inferno: An Infernal Misconception of Virology and Infectious Disease

Despite my usual inability to pull myself away from a Dan Brown novel or their film versions, the latest of the film installments, Inferno -- which centers on a bioterrorist plan -- was an unfortunate exception. 

The novel version of Inferno was chock full of the trademark Dan Brown literary signatures that I love being immersed in, however its endorsement of the thoroughly debunked Malthusian doomsday prophecy was something that really detracted from the other aspects of the book that I particularly enjoyed, including its indictment of religiously-motivated opposition to birth control.

But, given the topics I gravitate to, I wanted to draw some attention to the actual virus attack scenario that drives the film's plot. NPR has already addressed the veracity of the technical aspects of the fictional virus and I definitely agree with the assessments of the renowned virologists they interviewed.  

A couple of points I want to emphasize:

A virus that kills 95% of the population, as the Inferno virus is alleged to do, would be a very hard feat. As I discussed in my Atlantic piece, the sheer diversity of the human immune response and the fact that humans emerged in a pathogen-laden environment creates an extremely high bar for any microbe to scale. To achieve a 95% kill rate within a matter of week is pure fiction without a true basis in fact. 

Another important aspect that merits comments is the ability of a rogue scientist to synthesize such a virus. Even if one grants that the person possesses all the tacit knowledge required to do such high level synthetic biology and genetic engineering, what properties are required for a 95% kill rate? Should the virus be transmitted via the airborne route, through body fluids, or through contact? Should it be enveloped or naked? What is the trade-off? 

My point is that fictional viruses are the stuff of fiction and should remain there. While a movie like Inferno will draw much-needed attention to the risks of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases, hopefully it does so without allowing fantasy virus characteristics to cloud people's conception of where the true risks lie.