Contagion: A Dialogue

Could They Really Make a Vaccine So Quickly?
The state of the universe.
Sept. 9 2011 2:59 PM

Contagion: A Dialogue

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Jude Law in Contagion. Click for larger image.
Jude Law in Contagion

Dear Art—

I read your last dispatch on the train into New York today. I got out at Grand Central Station and passed a traffic jam on Vanderbilt Avenue that formed behind a squad of police searching the trunk of a black car. You could feel the 9/11 jitters quivering in the air again in advance of the 10th anniversary—another situation in which fear of the unknown was surging. I headed west, to watch Contagion again and to moderate a talk afterward between the scientific consultant Ian Lipkin and the screenwriter Scott Burns. On the way, I passed a bus with a poster for the movie plastered across its side. Splayed across the frantic faces of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow was a line of dialogue from the film: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone."

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Later, watching the movie again, I realized this was a brilliant—but telling—reversal. On the poster, the words sound like they might be said by a mother to her children—shouted, actually, as a preface to panic. But Burns wrote the line with a very different meaning.

It is uttered by Kate Winslet, who plays an epidemiological intelligence officer. (That's a real job, by the way. I wish I had a job title half as cool as that.) Winslet comes to Minnesota just as the epidemic begins and before people have started to panic. She figures out that a colleague of the ill Gwyneth Paltrow might have been exposed to the virus when he picked her up at the airport, so she calls him on his cell phone to track him down. He's on a bus, already sick. As she races into a car to meet him, she tells him to get out of the bus right away. "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone," she says.

In the movie, the line isn't about avoiding a virus. It's about keeping a virus to yourself. In other words, it's about public health. I find Contagion interesting not just for putting virology on the screen, but for making public health workers its heroes. Scientists may not get treated very well in Hollywood, but at least they show up in movies sometimes. I cannot think of another movie where epidemiologists get the star treatment. Contagion finds the detective story in their work. It shows how reconstructing the course of an outbreak can provide crucial clues, such as how many people an infected person can give a virus to, how many of them get sick, and how many of them die. Figuring out the history of an epidemic can help take away its future. The trouble that Germany had in tracking down the source of their deadly E. coli outbreak earlier this year (cucumbers from Spain—no, wait, bean sprouts from Germany—no, hold on, fenugreek seeds from Egypt) shows that public health systems can stumble in even the wealthiest countries on Earth. A major virus outbreak would be a much bigger challenge. Whether Contagion turns out to be fantasy or prophecy depends a lot on how well our public health system will perform.

It also depends, as you point out, on how quickly we can find vaccines and make them. At the screening, I raised that point with Lipkin. He said he's gotten some guff from his colleagues for the speed at which the scientists in the movie whip up a vaccine. But he personally thought that part of Contagion was too slow.

What?

Lipkin acknowledged that standard vaccine production is glacial. That's because of inertia, not science, he says. The technique of making flu vaccines in eggs was developed over five decades ago. Lipkin and his colleagues are now capable of figuring out how to trigger immune reactions to exotic viruses from animals in a matter of weeks, not months. And once they've created a vaccine, they don't have to use Eisenhower-era technology to manufacture it in bulk. Instead of making vaccines in chicken eggs, they can use insect cells, even yeast cells.

Not all viruses will be easy to target, Lipkin granted. HIV will remain tough to vaccinate, because it mutates quickly and can lurk in cells for years. But other viruses (like the ones Lipkin stitched together for Contagion) could be addressed quickly, if only we could drag vaccine development into the 21st century. The tools are all here, Lipkin argued; we just need to use them properly.

So now I see the ending of the Contagion differently than I did the first time. It's not a Hollywood mandate to have the audience leave the theater on happy note. It's a hint of what might be.

Carl Zimmer writes the weekly Matter column for the New York Times. His most recent book is Evolution: Making Sense of Life, co-authored with Douglas Emlen.

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