Entries in Contagion (4)

“Contagion” is a Deeply Unsettling, Haunting – and (Mostly) Realistic – Pandemic Film

Those of us who have made pandemic preparedness part of our curriculum vitae could not have been more excited about the premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, ““Contagion”.”

 And we were not disappointed.  “Contagion” is a paragon of what an intelligent biological thriller should be:  hyper-accurate, absorbing, and, most of all, a film that reminds us of our own individual responsibilities within a civilized society.

 Not to say that there’s not a little bit of Hollywood in this film.  More on that later.  First, let’s take a look at how the movie was made, the etiology of the fictional virus, and what Hollywood got right.  And in many cases, they got it absolutely right.

What “Contagion” got right 

The MEV-1 virus in the movie is the brainchild of Dr. Ian Lipkin, of Columbia University.  Dr. Lipkin directs the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.    He was contacted by Soderbergh and the film’s writer, Scott Z. Burns.  He agreed to come on board the production as a paid technical and science adviser.

Dr. Lipkin created a virus for the film that is patterned after an actual virus: The Nipah virus.  Nipah was first discovered in Malaysia in 1999.  The natural reservoir of Nipah is in the Malaysian fruit bat population.  The WHO reports that Nipah has also been found in bat urine and in partially-eaten fruit in the region.  Oh, by the way:  The real-life bats in question are migratory.  Toward that end, antibodies to a virus very similar to Nipah have been found in India, Indonesia and Timor.

There is a danger in making bats the heavy in the film.  Bats are essential in such areas as insect control.  And North American bats are dying by the millions, due to “white-nose syndrome,” a fungal infection that essentially suffocates bats during their annual hibernation. 

But bats are also vectors of some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, especially Ebola – and SARS. 

While the MEV-1 virus is patterned after Nipah, the pattern of infection is modeled after the SARS virus.  How quickly we forget how threatening SARS really was.  In bookstore remainder bins all over the continent, one can find Karl Greenfield’s seminal work on the SARS epidemic, titled, “ China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic.” I highly recommend his book.

While the original vector of SARS in 2002/03 was a “civet cat,” a peculiar-looking mammal, it may be that the civet cat in question was infected by a bat.  SARS virus has been found in Brazilian bats, so the danger is not localized to Southeast Asia by any means.

Had SARS been more like influenza and less like the common cold, we would have seen a pandemic that would have made 1918’s Spanish Flu look like the common cold.  In the US, the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 2.5% of everyone it infected.  In contrast, SARS killed 10% of those it infected, worldwide.  But luckily for us (“us” being the world), SARS infected so quickly, public health professionals got in front of the disease and eventually beat it down.  It is counterintuitive to be sure, but a disease that infects quickly is easier to corral than one with a days-long incubation period, such as influenza.

To go into how SARS infected and killed would also produce those obligatory “SPOILER ALERT!!” warnings and disclosures, which I want to avoid (where possible) in this review.  So suffice it to say that “Contagion” is disturbingly accurate when it comes to how quickly it was able to infect on a global scale.

SARS was not the exclusive province of China, Toronto or Singapore.  Two prominent Tallahassee residents (who I obviously cannot identify for HIPAA reasons) were infected by SARS during a visit to China in 2003.    The CDC and WHO were actually monitoring their health following their return to Tallahassee. By proxy, they were monitoring Tallahassee for signs of SARS infection.

So what Soberbergh, Burns and Lipkin created were a perfect fit of an established disease and historic established routes of transmission.  In other words, extremely realistic.

Dr. Lipkin also taught the cast how to correctly don protective gear, and how to speak the language of disease.

In the movie, the Elliott Gould character, Dr. Ian Sussman (yes, a probable nod to Dr. Ian Lipkin) is able to finally grow a sample of MEV-1 to produce a vaccine candidate.  This storyline parallels the first attempts to grow H5N1 in chicken eggs to produce a vaccine.  Bird flu was killing the eggs.  That was eventually overcome.  Of course, H5N1 poultry vaccines have arguably done more harm than good, but that is a matter left to my previous blogs on the subject.

Elliott Gould’s Dr. Sussman is handling the virus in a Level 3 lab, and the CDC has already ordered all samples not contained in a Level 4 lab to be destroyed by fire.  Dr. Sussman’s on-screen disregard for CDC protocols is reminiscent of the spanking that real-life Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin received in 2007 for handling “copies” of the dreaded Ebola virus in a level-2 lab. 

Laurence Fishburne’s admonition that “We don’t want that virus leaving on the bottom of someone’s shoe” refers to a frequent and ongoing concern.  For more information, refer to my ongoing blog series, “When labs attack.”

What “Contagion” could have done better

Where the movie deviates from probability, in this reviewer’s opinion, is in its depiction of how society would react to the virus.  These deviations are all permitted, because they are clearly possible. It is just in the areas that were left out that very minor – and forgivable – faults can be found.

In less than a month, society pretty much goes over the cliff.  Garbage lies uncollected and strewn about neighborhoods.  Unions strike, rather than perform their duties.  Governors call out the National Guard and seal borders without apparently seeking consultation from Washington.  And while grocery stores are ransacked and food is extremely scarce, the lights and phones somehow stay on.

The Enemy of the People in any pandemic is the stability of the supply chain.  That just-in-time supply chain is the most fragile part of our economy.  The level of global apprehension, not to mention the Case Fatality Rate of the MEV-1 virus in the film, would have produced much more damage to the global supply chain. 

Those of us who are sought-out as experts in pandemic preparedness often point to unions as a cause for concern.  In fact, pandemic planners factor in possible union (in)actions in their calculations, but I believe that people are also capable of doing heroic things.  The public health experts in “Contagion” are justifiably viewed as heroic.  But as we saw on 9/11, and as we were reminded this past weekend, heroism is not limited to one exclusive group of people.

However, the images of public employees such as law enforcement officers abandoning their posts in New Orleans during Katrina – and even joining in the looting and pillaging, in a few cases – is also testament to our individual faults and failings.  That, too, can be seen in “Contagion,” even at the higher levels of the government.

The film did not damage the critical infrastructure enough.  In a prolonged, 1918-type pandemic, we believe ports will clog, phones will become unreliable, and power will come on and off – all because there will not be sufficient levels of people healthy enough to work to maintain them, nor will there be sufficient numbers of people to work, due to absenteeism to take care of loved ones.  And there are always those who will burn sick days just for a headache.  We have estimated that, at the height of a pandemic, as much as a third of the workforce might be absent on any given workday.

The movie attempts to display the deterioration of society in a few select scenes, but the film did not go far enough in its depiction of the degradation of the infrastructure.  It did show the requisite looting of grocery stores, and certain unsettling acts of violence, and it did an excellent job in its frequent shots of uncollected refuse.

In a real-life, lethal pandemic, the military would be called upon to perform these tasks.  That would include the National Guard, which I must believe would be Federalized early on, in order to prevent the types of actions that were undertaken by individual governors as the pandemic worsened.  Federalizing the Guard places those units under the direct control of the Pentagon.  Governors lose their Guard in that scenario.  I would have to believe that the president would exercise that authority very, very early on in this process.

Sealing the borders, for example, has been almost completely tossed as a realistic countermeasure.  The SARS epidemic and the H1N1v “swine flu” pandemic showed how border closures would be ineffective to restrain any virus. 

This point (along with the supply chain issue) was actually done very well in the TV-movie “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America”. In that film, the military is called home from Iraq and Afghanistan to help maintain law and order.  I would expect governors to call all their Guard units home, to assist in stabilizing the infrastructure of their states and to curtail inevitable violence.

 Other than the depiction of labor unions as petty and self-serving, “Contagion” also serves as a confirmation of the Second Amendment during a crisis.  Cops are not around when the shooting starts.  Self-defense is the order of the day.  Being armed equals being safe.  These are two curious messages to be dealt by a Hollywood director, and I found it to be refreshing.


My family felt that it was a little preposterous that key public health people would not continuously wear their masks and gloves, especially in public.  We have had many discussions regarding the efficacy of wearing masks in public, however, and I defer to the writer and director on this topic. 

Another concern (the most deeply-rooted one) is in the film’s conflict between the CDC and the Minneapolis public health unit.  This is where the Hollywood formula kicks in, resembling a Criminal Minds episode where the local cops resent the FBI intrusion into their bidness.  The reality is that local public health units generally work very well with the CDC, and welcome their participation when things go bad.  In my experience, the CDC is a first-rate organization, led by top-flight people.  Local public health units do the best they can do, especially in this current economy, but “overwhelmed” would be an understatement on any given workday – let alone during a pandemic.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota (and who worked at the Minnesota Department of Health for a quarter-century), alluded to this during a recent “Contagion”-inspired interview.  In fact, the Minnesota Department of Health is one of the best-run departments of its kind in the country.

The other area that the movie (which runs a brisk 106 minutes) glosses over is within the subject  of vaccine production.  Public health experts such as Dr. Osterholm have stated that the movie’s scenario for vaccine production is too rosy (my words).  Vaccine production takes months, even in a “good” viral situation such as producing an influenza vaccine.  It took every bit of six months just to produce the swine flu vaccine. 

With a new and previously-unseen virus, especially considering the repeated failures of the prototypes, it would take considerably longer.  The wait for vaccine could take almost a year, causing further destruction of the global economy and the further erosion of the critical infrastructure.  And this does not even deal with the issue of who gets vaccine and who does not. 

In another “Contagion”-imitates-life example, a Chinese group has kidnapped a WHO official, and demands -- as ransom -- vaccine produced in the West.  This is a nod to the possibility of natively-produced substandard or even counterfeit vaccine.  It is nice to hear someone demanding America vaccine –anything – because it is the best in the world.  Note, at the end of the movie, the architecture of the open-air school housing the Chinese children. 

The vaccine issue is personalized within the village, but once again, the script alludes to larger global issues.  In this case, the rural, poor demand for vaccine speaks to the problems caused by Indonesia in the fight against bird flu.  Back in 2007, the Indonesian government refused to share  human bird flu samples – or even to quickly report human bird flu cases and deaths – simply because they felt their samples would make the global pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars, and, at the end of the day, leave Indonesia without any vaccine.  It took years for the West to negotiate an agreement with Indonesia to give them vaccine in exchange for human bird flu samples.

The movie did do a good job of showing the agony involved with waiting and waiting until their vaccine lottery number was called.  I found the prospect of a “vaccine lottery” to be a curious and interesting (and fair) way to resolve the issue of who got vaccine and when. The reality is, there is a schedule of who gets vaccine, at least within the first responder community, the military and the government.  The Strategic National Stockpile has the goods.  The Department of Homeland Security and state governments have the plans.  After that, I doubt if there is a plan, so the lottery idea seems as fair as any.

Finally, we need to address the issue of the blogger character played by Jude Law.  “Blogging is graffiti with punctuation,” Elliott Gould admonishes Law’s character.  Law’s Alan Krumwiede is the worst sort of blogger, one who is only interested in promoting his “brand” at the expense of the truth, not to mention people’s very lives, by promoting an unproven homeopathic “remedy.”  He is the 21st Century snake oil salesman, shamelessly hawking an elixir that is eventually proven to be dangerously ineffective. 

Fortunately, I do not know any bloggers personally who would fit into those shoes.  My disease-blogger friends are all dedicated people who, in their minds and in mine, are performing a valuable service by alerting their readers to some very real threats and dangers.  Their surveillance uncovered the swine flu pandemic before the world’s press did, and their work on tracking H5N1 has proven to be extremely accurate.  I hope Law’s Krumwiede would not get the attention he gets in the movie.  However, having sat numerous times where Law’s character sat, in a quiet studio, in front of a television camera with an IFB in my ear, talking to a reporter or a network news anchor, I can understand how a marginal “playa” could become a fiend, mainstreamed by the press. It is up to the individual to censor him/herself and to produce accurate content.


““Contagion”” is an incredibly well-researched, disturbingly plausible, and extremely well-made film.  With the exceptions of the vaccine production timetable and the downplaying of the damage to the economy and the critical infrastructure, Soderbergh and Burns got it right.  Soderbergh is his own cinematographer as well (under a nom de plume), and his use of “available light” in place of standard movie lighting techniques makes the film feel much more realistic -- which means, of course, much more disturbing.  The cast, without exception, is fantastic.  Gwyneth Paltrow factors heavily throughout the film, so her apparent quick departure in the film’s first act is compensated for throughout the movie. 

And equally exceptional is the villain, the MEV-1 virus.  The fact that it is based on a real virus should wake us all up to the need to engage more strenuously in personal hygiene, and remember the things Momma taught us:


  •       Wash your hands frequently.
  •       Cover your cough, not with your hands, but with your sleeve, or a handkerchief or napkin.
  •       Keep a respectable distance from strangers.


Now go put on your Level 4 gear and go see the movie!


Here are some other sites, in case you want more “Contagion” stuff:


Mike Coston’s superb Avian Flu Diary, and his entry on the movie.



An interview with Dr. Mike Osterholm on the accuracy of “Contagion”:


And a dynamite Wired blog, written by the extremely talented Maryn McKenna, featuring an interview with Dr. Ian Lipkin.  Maryn has two books in print that hypochrondriacs should not read.  Her latest is on MRSA and it is called Superbug. Find it at your local bookstore, if one still exists, or order it from Amazon.



Last, and least, an article on “Contagion” from a Palm Springs, California newspaper, with some quotes from yours truly.



"We just need to make sure that nobody knows, until everybody knows" -- enjoy these clips from "Contagion"

The entertainment Website Filmonair.com has put up some clips from the Steven Soderbergh disease thriller "Contagion."  enjoy them and listen to A-list actors deliver such lines as "social distancing" and "Congress is figuring out how to work online." 


FAO warns of spread of Fujian H5N1 mutation

Back in 2008, flublogia announced the origins of a new clade, or substrain, of bird flu.  And I joined right in, proclaiming that the new clade -- nicknamed "Fujian," after the province where it was subtyped -- would eventually cause major problems.  The best blog of mine that I could remember on the topic, from 2008, can be read here.  You might also be entertained by my original blog on the Chinese H2H case involving Fujian H5N1, here.  I know I was; I have forgotten half of this stuff! 

Fujian H5N1 was the cause of the father-to-son (or was it son-to-father) Chinese H2H infection back in 2008.  The arrival of simultaneous Fujian B2B and H2H bird flu was extremely troubling to all of us.

Well, it took awhile (just over three years), but Fujian H5N1 is on the lips of television announcers and copy editors the world over.  The reason?  The FAO (think WHO for animals) released a statement today, proclaiming great worry over this "new" mutant strain of bird flu, and imploring the world to monitor it carefully.

Now the timing of such stories is interesting.  We have been monitoring Fujian for years, as I mentioned earlier.  But with the release of the film "Contagion," we may be seeing where the world's public health authorities see an opportunity to raise awareness just when bird flu is about to become a household word again.

Make no mistake:  I am all about awareness.  Consider my own "pandemic fatigue" following the aftermath of the first wave of the swine flu/H1H1 pandemic of 2009-11.  This story woke me up and caused me to go back and retrace my own experiences writing about Fujian 2.3.x H5N1.  So let's review what has been happening in the months since I last blogged seriously about H5N1. 

As of August 19th of this year, there were more confirmedhuman bird flu cases than in all of 2004, 2008 or 2010.  Keep in mind that this includes an alarming increase in Egyptian human cases and accompanying deaths.  But most distressing is the sudden re-emergence of Cambodia as a bird flu incubator.  While Egypt has had 32 cases and 12 deaths to date, Cambodia has had 8 cases -- all fatal.  Of course, we shrug our shoulders at Indonesia, which continues to befuddle Western experts with its distressing lack of transparency. 

So 2011 already ranks as the fifth-worst year for human H5N1, and we have the beginnings of flu season in which to add to that total.  It would take a huge, but not impossible, acceleration of human cases to move it past 2009's 73 totals.  that is the good news.  But the FAO apparently sees a cause-and-effect relationship between the initial discovery of a new clade, the distribution of that new clade, its ability to overtake the existing clade as the dominant substrain, and then extend its reach back into humanity.  Now it is hard to calculate an accurate Case Fatality Rate (CFR) based on such low numbers, but it is safe to say that of all the documented H5N1 human cases, we are still at a reliable 50% figure, meaning that half of all human bird flu patients either die of the disease or its byproducts.  In Egypt, that figure is currently 37%; in Cambodia and Indonesia, it is much, much higher.

The FAO is signaling that it fully expects bird flu cases in poultry and in humans to accelerate in 2011.  The efforts to vaccinate poultry, while admirable, have failed to eradicate the disease (did we ever really expect this effort to be successful?).  Pockets of H5N1 remained and pockets remain today.  While migratory wildfowl (laden with virus) are the primary culprit, humans and their myriad and almost universally bad ways of moving poultry from area to area are also culpable.    Perhaps even more so, when humans smuggle sick and dying poultry across borders, as happens hourly from the Bird Flu Ho Chi Minh Trail from Vietnam into China.

In my next blog, we will take a look at the Australian situation with Tamiflu-resistant H1N1.

Contagion shows bird flu is still alive in the Hollywood psyche (good!)

Contagion Stills & Gallery

Hello, whatever-is-left-of-my-personal-blogosphere!  I know I have not blogged on disease in quite some time.  For that, I plead guilty, with an explanation. 

My day job -- my career as an incomparably-talented and world-renowned IT leader -- has been very demanding over the past year or so.   Plus, to be honest, I think I have been suffering from "post-pandemic shutdown."

I know other bloggers have been dealing with the aftermath of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic.  We all have sort of branched out to engage other diseases.  But influenza is what got me into blogging, and influenza is still at the core of all disease bloggers' interest.

We are all grateful that H1N1/2009 was the relatively mild event that it was.  But we also know that another pandemic always lurks around the corner, behind the building and out of view.  We also know that at least one pandemic each century is a real humdinger, death-wise.

Nonetheless, like Y2K before it, the H1N1/2009 pandemic was surely viewed by the global mainstream media as a sort of nonevent.  Never mind how much work we all put into preparedness.  never mind how much money went into culling poultry (and compensating farmers worldwide).  never mind how much Tamiflu and Relenza we stockpiled around the world.  And never mind how much went into drilling exercises and preparedness messages into our citizens' heads. 

So it was a great and pleasant surprise to stumble upon this trailer for the upcoming film Contagion.  I am a huge film buff, and I was reading about the progress of filming the Max Brooks zombie masterpiece World War Z in Malta and Scotland when I saw a link for a trailer for some film called Contagion.


This is what we thought we would see from Hollywood back in 2006 and 2007.  Instead, we got the passable but still pedestrian Bird Flu: Fatal Contact Movie of the Week.  How this film's existence got by me is unknown, me being such a big EOTWAWKI (End of the World as We Know It) film kinda-guy. Especially with it being a BIRD FLU MOVIE!

The film is directed by Steven Soderberg, he of the Oceans (Clooney-Pitt) movies and Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich.  It stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Lawrence Fishbourne.  After watching this trailer, I think we can agree that this should be one helluva scary film.  Listen closely to Fishbourne's character deliver one of the best lines in recent cinematic history.  Post a comment and let me know which line I am talking about.