The movie follows a number of people in different walks of life as a fast-moving and deadly new disease spreads around the world. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is an ordinary Minneapolis man whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is one of the first to come down with the disease. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the Centers for Disease Control, tries to organize the effort to track and control the disease, sending his idealistic young assistant Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to take charge of the effort there. But Dr. Cheever is hounded by politicians and the media, all with their own agendas, and he struggles to balance his personal and public duties.
Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) is a crusty old researcher who breaks the rules in his determination to find a way to culture the virus. Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) puts her own life at risk trying to speed the development of a vaccine. Meanwhile iconoclastic blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is determined to unmask the villains who he is sure are profiting from the disaster.
Actually this movie has only one real villain. There are a lot of people who do bad things, but only because they are desperate and feel that they have no other choice. Only a few characters qualify as heroes, mostly obscure people who get no laurels for their heroism. Which is probably the way things would work out in reality.