2011 Oct 22

“Contagion” film is not far from the truth, warns virus scientist

Dr. Ian Lipkin, expert who advised on Soderbergh’s movie, says we must be better prepared for outbreak of deadly disease

It’s a classic Hollywood tale: scientists race against time to decode a killer virus that is spreading across the world. But the scientist who advised Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh on his new thriller, Contagion, says the events and themes of his latest film carry a very real warning for our times.

Dr. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology at New York’s Columbia University, was recruited as a senior technical adviser on Soderbergh’s blockbuster. The film, which opened in cinemas on Friday, charts the emergence of a deadly infectious disease that ignites a pandemic.

Scientists are first alerted after Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, becomes sick after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and dies two days later. As the virus quickly spreads and the death toll rises, it is down to a team of scientists — including Dr Erin Mears, played by Kate Winslet — to decode the virus so that a vaccine can be produced.

According to Lipkin, the plot is anything but unrealistic. Virus outbreaks are an increasing threat in the 21st century, he says, because of greater international trade and travel, urbanization, loss of wildlife habitats and inadequate investment in infrastructure for surveillance, vaccine production and distribution.

“Scientists have been accused of overreacting and crying wolf over the threat of virus outbreaks after the influenza pandemic of 2009,” Lipkin told the Observer. “Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] didn’t progress beyond a few locations, but outbreaks and pandemics will occur and we need to get our heads out of the sand and realize the real risks that we face. More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans.

“Our vulnerability to such diseases has been heightened by the growth in international travel and the globalization of food production. In addition, deforestation and urbanization continue to displace wildlife, increasing the probability that wild creatures will come in contact with domesticated animals and humans.”

Lipkin says societies need to be more proactive in combating the dangers. “People need to understand that science is critical to address these kinds of challenges and respond in real time,” he said. “We need to be prepared. We need better bio-surveillance, with better detection and better ability to develop vaccines. However, our public health system is underfunded and overwhelmed, and we need more scientists.”

Lipkin added: “When I was a kid, the launching of Sputnik made us aware that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the race for space. Now all of us are in a battle that is potentially devastating, only it is not against another country but against microbes.”

In Contagion, Soderbergh draws on real-life disease outbreaks, including the 2003 Sars epidemic, which started in Hong Kong and spread to 37 countries, infecting more than 8,400 people and causing 916 deaths.

Lipkin assisted the World Health Organization and the Chinese ministry of health in managing the Sars outbreak, at some personal peril – he became ill and was quarantined on returning to the US.

“The events portrayed in this film are based largely on real experiences,” said Lipkin. “For example, there are scenes in the movie where at the height of the pandemic the streets are deserted, there are food and supply shortages and political instability, and this directly comes out of my vivid memories of what it was like in Beijing during the Sars crisis.

“I was also able to advise actors from personal experience what it feels like to be quarantined – an eerie experience where you are behind glass and cut off from loved ones.”

Lipkin is one of the world’s foremost microbe hunters and over the past decade has identified more than 400 new viruses. But unlike British cosmologist Dr Martin Rees, who controversially predicted in his book Our Final Hour that civilization had no more than a 50% chance of surviving until 2100, Lipkin is an optimist.

“Since the Sars outbreak, there has been increased investment to look at wildlife around the world and there is better integration between the different public health agencies both nationally and internationally,” Lipkin said. “So there is reason to be optimistic, and I believe we can address the problems.

“We are one world — humans and animals — and we need to take care of one another. We also, for example, need to insist that people move away from technologies that slow down the production of vaccines so that we can develop a vaccine in three months instead of six.”

Contagion pays tribute to the scientists and public health officials who dedicate their lives to trying to solve the problem of emerging viruses. Winslet’s character is based on Italian scientist Carlo Urbani, who was the first to identify Sars and became infected with the disease while treating patients and died aged 46, leaving his wife and three children.

“The most moving portions of the film were those where I saw people who were very similar to people whom I’ve known, people who didn’t have well-known names, who died in the service of science and public health,” said Lipkin. “The film is in some ways a living memorial to them.”

Source: The Observer