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The spread of fear


Åsa Karlström 9 October 2011

Panic stations: detail from the promo poster

The movie does not come up with a quick-fix vaccine in a few days as you might see in a normal virus thriller, but never in real life

If you look at the various definitions of the word contagion, you find not only “the direct cause, such as virus or bacteria, of a communicable disease” but also, the “tendency to spread of an influence or emotional state” or “a harmful corrupting influence”. It is, therefore, a very fitting title for a movie about a pandemic that is just starting to spread with no identified cure at the beginning. In addition to the science, the movie also explores the effects on society of a pandemic, including mass hysteria and changes in behaviour.

When I saw the previews for “Contagion”, I was both excited and apprehensive. As a microbiologist by trade, I love microbes and would definitely enjoy an exciting story about discovering the causes of and solution to a potential pandemic. But at the same time, I have seen a lot of movies where the science is just not up to par with reality. Fortunately, I found “Contagion” a delight to watch, since the science was both relevant and accurate.

The movie is directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z Burns. These two previously worked together in the movie The Informant, and also with actor Matt Damon, who plays one of the leads in the present movie. The cast is a star-studded ensemble: Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishbourne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Elliott Gould as the virus professor (“If he doesn’t know the virus, no one will know it”). Best of all is Jennifer Ehle, who plays the daring Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doctor Ally Hextall. She is in charge of vaccine trials and of testing the various combinations of vaccine components in monkeys, and her impressive performance made her a new movie heroine for me. I was in fact happily surprised overall to see a rather evenly distributed, and realistic, cast of women and men, reflecting the fact that the fields of biology, epidemiology and have a lot of women in their ranks.

“Contagion” is told from the perspective of several lead characters and takes place in Hong Kong, Minnesota, Atlanta and San Francisco. The film also features maps where you can see the pandemic’s pattern of spread. According to some interviews, Soderbergh was motivated to make an "ultra-realistic" film about the public health and scientific response to a pandemic, and in that case I would say he has succeeded with “Contagion”. It’s a very realistic movie about what will happen if (or as I would say, as a microbiologist with a background in influenza research – when) we encounter a pandemic. It is not a regular Hollywood movie like “Outbreak”, but feels more like a Department of Health or CDC documentary: the storyline does not include a “quick fix” or special effects.

The scientific advisor of the movie is Professor W. Ian Lipkin, who apart from being a professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. He has, in my opinion, made some very good suggestions and directions – it is probably because of his advice that the movie does not come up with a quick-fix vaccine in a few days as you might see in a normal virus thriller, but never in real life.

One of the more intriguing lead characters apart from the scientists is, Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law). A non-scientist, citizen “investigattive journalist”, he blogs at “The Truth Serum”, where he publishes stories about the government and pharmaceutical companies making money by fooling “the people”. Is he a whistle-blower or a paranoid anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist? It’s hard to say: one person’s hero is another’s villain.

The science does not present the only dilemmas in the film. The Department of Health in Minnesota keeps asking, “Who is going to pay for this?” This serves as a good reminder that even if we knew what we want to have done in response to an epidemic or pandemic, there will inevitably be decisions made based on money. Even if we would like to save everyone right then and there, it might not be possible. In the end, politicians will look for re-election and threat assessment before making those life-and-death decisions.

Although I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, I did wonder what a person who is not a scientific geek and is not in love with microbes would think. I have talked to a few non-scientific friends who have seen it and even though they liked it as a whole, the main consensus seem to be that the movie was a little “slow”, “not as dramatic as other movies” and maybe could have been “more scary”, although they liked the “realistic portrayal of what a pandemic might look like over a few years.”

Personally, I think it was perfectly stressful as it was. What would you do if you knew an epidemic was spreading through a city where your loved ones lived, yet you cannot tell them to evacuate since that might lead to rumours, mass panic and more people dying in the end? Would you pick up the phone and tell that special one to run, or would you adhere to the rules and hope that everything would turn out well for everyone in the end?

In the end, “Contagion” gave a lot of food for thought about how governments and major public health organizations should handle sensitive information and release it the public. What happens when a blogger develops a following so happy to see government deceit in every corner that it blindly believes everything it is told? This question resonates, considering the current discussions about vaccines in general, anti-vaccination movements and of course, freedom of speech. It’s not an easy question, and if nothing else, the movie shows with even more certainty that we as scientists and believers of proven data still need to be aware that many people do not necessarily believe data more than a charismatic person that they simply trust more.