Virus Hunters review: Haunting National Geographic documentary investigates aftermath of deadly viruses
Virus Hunters successfully grounds its storytelling in statistics that doesn’t alienate its audience under the garb of educating them. But it also fumbles, taking refuge in repetition and a slight Western condescension.
Can the next pandemic get significantly more contagious than the Covid-19 outbreak? Is investigating the origins of a potential pandemic before it has the chance to spread the best way to ward it off or would more knowledge cause more fear? Exactly how safe is the future from the threat of viruses that are equipped to upend lives overnight and wreak irreversible havoc? And more importantly, what is stopping us from learning from previous mistakes and ensuring that they aren’t repeated the next time there’s a virus outbreak? These are some of the questions that James Longman, an award-winning ABC News foreign correspondent and Chris Golden, a Harvard ecologist and epidemiologist, set out to answer as they travel to hotspots across the world in Virus Hunters, a new documentary special premiering tonight on National Geographic channel. Part of Spotlight, an anthology of National Geographic documentaries, the 44-minute-long Virus Hunters – essentially a film about the aftermath of deadly viruses – was shot entirely during an actual global pandemic.
“How did they miss COVID?,” Longman asks Golden at the beginning of the film. “We just haven’t done a good enough job of preparing for this type of event,” Goldman replies, his confession indicative of the dangers that potential pandemics – and if history is any proof, these seem to be occurring every few years – could hold for human civilisation.
Golden and Longman’s first stop during their fact-finding expedition to gauge how scientists and scientific experts across the world are working to prevent viruses in the future is Liberia, the West African nation where the lethal Ebola outbreak originated in 2014. As the duo glean in the film, it’s perhaps this history of disease that played an instrumental role behind Liberia’s diligence in containing coronavirus. The dichotomy is made amply clear the minute both of the masked men, who underwent rigorous testing at the airport, step out of the airport and realise that no one in Liberia is wearing a mask. Here, they travel into the rainforest, stopping at a bat cave where Ebola is said to have originated, accompanying a team of researchers dedicated to trapping bats and studying them for any diseases in the hope that they might be able to contain a future pandemic. The researches are prone to risk as well: If a bat bites any of them, it could lead to a disease transmission that could in turn, take the shape of a pandemic.
It is in this section of the film, which also sees Longman and Golden travel to the markets where bushmeat is sold (bushmeat was believed to have been the origin of the Ebola outbreak), that Virus Hunters compellingly drives home its central message through a mix of piece-to-cameras by experts, voiceovers with troubling statistics, and on-ground evidence: global pandemics are sparked more easily than we can imagine, which also means that it is imperative that we, as a population, educate ourselves about the very many ways to prevent it.
According to the film, the biggest obstacle stopping scientists from staying ahead of virus-carrying, diseased bats or animals is how seamlessly they find their way into the food supply chain, especially in countries where governments lack safety controls. As the documentary underlines, the three main touchpoints of transmission are all related to human consumption, like hunting, butchering, or cooking contaminated meats. Picture this: If an infected bat defecates on grapes, then that food item is a possible threat. Another troubling facet is the ease with which these viruses jump species: When Longman and Golden travel to Turkey next, they explore the outbreak of MERS, which jumped from bats to camels to humans. That a virus outbreak doesn’t necessarily require humans to be eating bats directly, as was the case with COVID-19, is chilling information.
Their next stop is the United States of America where they explore the threats posed by Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) which jumps from deers to humans and is known to cause brain tissue damage. Longman and Golden end the mission with a visit to an Iowa laboratory that daminsters nasal swabs to pigs in order to discover any unknown viruses. This stretch of Virus Hunters is especially riveting given that it shatters the myth that a pandemic of a large scale can only originate in developing or exotic countries. As Virus Hunters reveals, a virus outbreak can occur in any part of the world, even in America. Throughout the film, Longman and Golden also meticulously draw a parallel between the extent of man-made environmental damage and its corresponding effect of human health, astutely adding another layer to revealing the reason behind the rise in these viruses in the last few years.
In that sense, as a documentary that seeks to make a strong case about the fact that “COVID-19 is the wake-up call”, Virus Hunters is informative and riveting.
It does a solid job of grounding its storytelling in research and statistics that doesn’t alienate the audience under the garb of educating them. That also makes up for the filmmaking that often fumbles, taking refuge in repetition and a slight Western condescension to the dismal quality of life in developing countries. Even then, that Virus Hunters remains a
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