"We need to find that monkey if we are going to make the serum to save Johnny!"

It is an old stand-by in movies - a character is bit by a snake or gets a virus transmitted to him by another critter, and the hero must go out and find that particular critter so that the (fetching but serious female) scientist can make the serum or vaccine or whathaveyou to save Johnny from an excruciating death.

The most recent time I recall seeing this was in
Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman, where they had to find the host monkey in order to create the serum to save the infected town.

Is there any basis in reality to this rather long in the tooth plot device?


In the case of snake bite, it has sometimes been advised to kill the snake so it can be accurately identified, so that the proper type of antivenin can be given. Different kinds of snakes have different venoms and require different kinds of antivenin. (However, nowadays many doctors would advise not trying to kill or catch the snake, lest additonial people be bitten).

In the case of a virus, in order to make a vaccine you would generally need a sample of the virus in order to produce the specific antibodies. I don’t think you would need to catch the monkey, as long as you had samples of virus from the people that had previously been infected.

Of course, in the case of a possibly rabid animal, if possible the animal is captured and killed and its brain is tested for the virus. This is in order to spare the victim a course of very painful injections in case the animal was not rabid, not to produce antibodies.

Not for bites, considering that most anti-venoms have already been developed and will work for any individual animal within a species. No need to have a special anti-venom for each creature, just for each poison. I’m not as sure about virus transmission, so I won’t pretend to know.
However, as a child I was bitten by a stray dog. Animal control was called to capture the animal so that it could be tested for rabies. Had they been unable to locate the animal, I would have had to go through the whole series of painful shots “just to be safe”.
Perhaps situations like that is where this idea comes from?

bella–seeing Colibri beat me to it. Damn you, I’m posting anyway! :smiley:

Thanks for the answers, both of you. The quote above leads to the other part of this plot device, that within hours of the receipt of a sample of the critter’s blood, the (fetching but serious female) doctor can whip up the serum.

Given the huge difficulties in creating an HIV vaccine, obviously it is not possible to create a vaccine so quickly for all viruses. Is it possible to do it so quickly for any? In theory, when you consider that some vaccines are simply dead viruses, mebbe you can quickly grow some in agar, nuke 'em dead, and inject the patient in order to induce an overwhelming immune response, but, ya know, I’m not quite buying it. :wink:


There are several real-life scenarios to consider;

  1. “Johnny is bitten by a poisonous critter”; the critter must be identified for doctors to select the appropriate antiserum. Antisera are manufactured well ahead of time.

  2. “Johnny is bitten by a diseased critter”; the critter must be diagnosed for doctors to select the appropriate treatment. The treatment might be a previously manufactured antibiotic, a previously manufactured antitoxin, or a desperation ploy like previously manufactured gamma globulin.

  3. “Johnny is bitten by a diseased director”; the director, desperate to create suspense, imagines a race against time wherein some task that requires weeks of laboratory time, if not years of research, is done in hours or days so that johnny can be saved.

  4. “Johnny is bitten by a diseased screenwriter”; the screenwriter, desperate to create a script simple enough to be understood by a studio executive, either ignores or misuses proper medical terminology to create an emotional impact. He has full-blown diseases cured with vaccines (which are essentially preventive), sera or antisera (serum is a component of blood, and I don’t think anyone injects it into people when it’s loaded with monkey or horse proteins), and other things that people have heard of and sound scientific.

Serum is the yellowish fluid that is left on top after blood clots and the clot settles to the bottom of the tube. It contains antibodies (and a lot of other things).

Before antibiotics, when movies were in black and white, people treated infections with “serum” from people who, because of previous exposure, were making antibodies to the infective agent. I think people even used serum to treat bacterial pneumonia (I saw that once in a black and white movie. You get the serum from someone who has just recovered from pneumonia and give it to a more attractive or much younger person who is near death). This doesn’t work as well as antibiotics and has its hazards (i.e., allergic reactions and transmission of infectious agents) so its use is very limited today. Today, we try to remove the antibodies from the serum and call the antibody-enriched fraction “immune globulin” or “IG” (formerly “gamma globulin”). IG is still used for the treatment of spider and snake bites. It is also used under certain circumstances to prevent rabies, tetanus, and chickenpox after exposure and, before a good hepatitis A vaccine became available, IG was given before exposure to prevent hepatitis a.

For what it’s worth, my epidemiologist wife says she went to see this movie with some of her classmates, and they howled with derisive laughter all the way through it. “Just got funnier and funnier, all the way to the end,” she told me.

Thanks, Yeah. I think that, combining that treatment method and the need to find the particular critter to test for rabies, we probably have the original basis for this plot device.

GQ comes through again.