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“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.



Reader Comments (2)

Hi Scott - I enjoyed your comments. I'm writing a piece about Flublogia and Krumwiede ('Contagion''s venal blogger, for those who haven't seen it) and would love to talk with you. Please email me if you'd like to chat. I'm going to try to write this soon, so please let me know. I follow you at Twitter as @PeterChristHall, so that's another way to reach me.
Best & thanks, Peter

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Christian Hall

Sorry, I meant to send also this piece I wrote for Reuters, which explains how the virus in the movie evolved. It has a lot of new material. http://blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/2011/09/13/how-the-contagion-virus-was-born/

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Christian Hall

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