This seems like it would make an awesome movie, and did make a bestselling novel. Millions of people have enjoyed solving puzzles alongside Langdon as he races against the clock and around the world to find clues. But, scientifically speaking, how plausible is the concept behind Inferno?
Now, before I get into the pedantics, I'd like to note that it was very important to both director Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp that they get things right, especially concerning the aspect of overpopulation. They worked extremely hard to make the antagonist of the film, a bioengineer named Bertand Zobrist, believable and, while a bit insane, they wanted him to be methodical and convincing. You can't do this with shady science and statistics. So the numbers that are reported in the movie as far as overpopulation statistics were painstakingly collected and are accurate. It then fell to the writers and movie production crew to come up with a way for this methodical mad scientist to take care of overpopulation in a thrilling way that would keep readers and movie-lovers on the edge of their seats. Not always an easy task. Thankfully, there are some awesome scientists out there who are willing to share their expertise!
Yesterday I had the great opportunity to talk to Alexei Aravin, a biologist from California Institute of Technology, about some of the science behind the movie, and how things like that would work in real life. Are bioweapons something we need to be concerned about in the real world?
According to Aravin, the answer is both yes and no.
In Inferno, we have a madman who happens to have both the education and resources to work with viruses. Aravin said there are no known viruses that would behave quite the way that Zobrist's virus works, but we can assume that Zobrist is crazy and smart enough to modify something heavily enough so that it works--in the movie.
According to Dr. Aravin, after a virus is developed (and there is, as I said, no known virus that would be able to do what Zobrist wants it to do in the film--any virus would have to be heavily modified), there would be a couple major problems a madman (or, say, a country who wants to attack another, or a terrorist group, etc) would have to overcome before he was able to infect the world with a massive virus.
The first, in relation to the film, is that it's super unlikely that one person could pull off a plan like this on his own. While Dr. Aravin has seen the film, I haven't, so I don't know exactly how Zobrist tries to accomplish this (and I wouldn't say if I did, because SPOILERS, SWEETY!), but one madman trying to infect millions of people with a targeted virus would be extremely difficult when you take into account the way viruses behave. There would need to be methods of production, testing, transport, planning, and detonation. One man couldn't realistically coordinate all this. There would need to be a coordinated group of crazy people to carry out this crazy plan. "And hopefully there are not enough crazy people in the world," Aravin says, to make this a reality. While there are a lot of nuts out there, they would all have to be united under the same goal, have knowledge of viruses, and have resources available to them. All of these things combined make it highly unlikely that this sort of operation would remain covert long enough to be carried out without something leaking. And they would need to keep it quiet for some time, because of the second problem with using a virus to wipe out any one section of the population.