Contagion: Spreading Fear In Fine Cinematic Style

I saw “Contagion” yesterday with a friend, and we were both impressed with the film. It’s well-paced, has a sweet soundtrack and is, well, scary. In fact, it’s probably the scariest film I’ve seen in a while (much more frightening than the mostly lame “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”). I’m glad to see it won the weekend box office brawl with a little more than $22 million.

What makes the movie so frightening is that it imagines a pandemic disease that could, one supposes, happen in reality. The first question most movie-goers are likely to ask — and I was among them — is how realistic was the scenario in the film? Well, according to some scientific advisers on “Contagion,” it is very realistic.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Science magazine did (via The Washington Post) with the scientists involved in the film:

The new Stephen Soderbergh thriller “Contagion” presents a terrifying vision of a global pandemic: a virus that kills millions of people as scientists struggle to find a vaccine. Last week, in connection with the anniversary of the 2001 anthrax attacks, ScienceNOW, the online news site of Science magazine, hosted a discussion with two consultants on the film: Laurie Garrett, who has reported on infectious diseases for 30 years and recently wrote “I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks,” and W. Ian Lipkin, a neurologist and epidemiologist at Columbia University who has helped identify several new infectious agents.

Following are edited and re-ordered excerpts from the conversation. The entire chat can be found at news.sciencemag.org.

Tell us about the making of “Contagion.” What’s an example of how you improved its scientific accuracy?

W. Ian Lipkin: We designed a plausible virus and showed an accurate laboratory and public-heath response scenario. I coached the actors on how to demonstrate symptoms of disease. The habitat-destruction scene at the end of the film is a powerful reminder of the zoonotic [animal-to-human] origin of many emerging infectious diseases.

Laurie Garrett: I was involved at the script level, and there were 30 — yes, 30 — drafts. In countless ways, from brainstorming on plots all the way down to very specific ways a scientist might phrase a comment, I had input, and offered critique.

About the virus you helped “create” for the movie: How probable would it be that something like that could happen naturally in the world today?

Lipkin: The majority of emerging and re-emerging infectious-disease threats arise in nature; nonetheless, synthetic biology is becoming an increasingly important field to monitor as costs go down and tools become more accessible.

Did you face any resistance when you tried to include actual science in the plot?

Lipkin: The “Contagionists” were committed to getting it right. There were only a few instances where I might have made other choices — however, none of the choices were poor choices.

Ian Lipkin (one of the advisers interviewed above) also wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. He ended it with the following:

What can we do to prepare ourselves? A presidential directive in 2007 led to the establishment of the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess our biosurveillance capabilities and make recommendations for improving detection, prevention and management of biohazards. The subcommittee, which includes representatives from federal, state and local agencies, academia and industry (and on which I serve as co-chairman), has issued reports that provide a road map for steps we have to take to protect our future.

First, we need to recognize that our public health system is underfinanced and overwhelmed. We must invest in sensitive, inexpensive diagnostic tests and better ways of manufacturing and distributing drugs and vaccines. Although new technology now allows us to design many vaccines in days, manufacturing strategies for influenza vaccines have not changed in decades. Some experts will say that the time frame within which “Contagion” introduces the film’s MEV-1 vaccine is unrealistically short; however, it need not be so. We can and must reduce the several months required to create and test a vaccine before beginning large-scale production and distribution.

Second, more and better coordination is needed among many local, federal and international agencies. Joint effort is required to monitor human, animal and environmental health, optimize electronic health records, mine nontraditional data sources like the Internet for early signs of outbreaks and invest in a state-of-the-art work force.

“Contagion” makes the case that scientists and public health professionals who put themselves on the line to fight infectious diseases are heroes. I hope that, like Sputnik, it will inspire young people to pursue these careers and help the rest of the country understand the importance of these efforts. It is what the world urgently needs.

In short, if you’re looking for a good thriller to rile you up and get you thinking, “Contagion” is a smart choice.

 

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