Contagion: A Dialogue

We Dodged the Bullet With SARS.
The state of the universe.
Sept. 9 2011 10:15 AM

Contagion: A Dialogue


Matt Damon in Contagion
Matt Damon in Contagion 

Thanks Carl, for injecting some calm and virological learning into this discussion. I agree with you that the filmmakers are to be commended for talking to scientists and making some effort to get the scientific and deliberative procedures right. And I don't deny that a quick-moving pandemic on this scale is possible.

The film reflects an increasing cultural awareness of the actual peril and unpredictability of viruses; clearly Hollywood has absorbed enough of our real-life experience with these critters to make Contagion rather than another version of Outbreak (1995). The genre for these germ movies has shifted from pure sci-fi to something more like social commentary. (Not that Dawn of the Dead was lacking in social commentary.)

As you say, the film's handling of the vaccine process is a bit fantastic. Not so much the self-injection; there is a fine tradition of scientists trying out their drugs and vaccines on themselves, as chronicled in Times-man Larry Altman's Who Goes First?. When you talk to the parasitologists at Walter Reed you learn that they tested vaccine after failed vaccine by sticking their arms into cages full of malarial mosquitoes.

I'll accept that for the purposes of telegraphed pipe-laying, the lovely and talented Dr. Hextall does everything from analyzing MEV-1's phylogeny and modeling its structure to developing and testing the vaccine. We all know they work hard at CDC, but this is one busy lady. And not a hair out of place.

I didn't catch whether the filmmakers indicated the time lapse between Dr. Hextall's successful self-jab and the rollout of the finished vaccine, but I'm sure it was ridiculously short. The question is, are we to compare Contagion's vaccine-production schedule with the delay and vexation of making an actual vaccine or previous fictional ones?

In Arrowsmith, which Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1925 with the assistance of scientist and science writer Paul de Kruif, the Rockefeller boys cook up a plague vaccine in a few weeks. Then again, vaccine-making was streamlined in those days: 1) Grow bacteria; 2) Kill with formaldehyde; 3) Inject into children. Nobody quite knew how to make a modern viral vaccine until the 1940s. Interestingly, the process has gotten longer as the science progresses. 

The H1N1 vaccine set a modern record for speed. The virus was detected in April 2009, its structure doped out within weeks, and by the end of May, Doris Bucher and colleagues at New York Medical College had created vaccine seed stock for the pharmaceutical companies. Trials were on by early July, and the first vaccines arrived in September—after a delay caused by difficulties creating a reagent to test the vaccine's efficacy.

The novel H1N1 was a fairly easy flu virus for the vaccine companies to work with. The H5N1 "bird flu," on the other hand, has been extremely troublesome, in part because it's so deadly to fowl eggs. There's still no human vaccine against West Nile fever (but there is a horse vaccine). Not to mention dengue fever. More money would help. But even pouring money into research is no guarantee of success against a novel agent. Just look at the billions spent on HIV vaccines, with little of clinical value to show for it.

We dodged the bullet with SARS, as the virus burned itself out or mutated into something harmless. I don't think it's clear how quickly a vaccine against SARS would have been ready, but I'm sure it would have been a question of years, not months.

If the next bad thing is a new flu, our decades of experience making vaccines against this virus should speed the availability of vaccines, most likely. If it's some freaky new virus that comes out of bats or pigs or wherever else—a subject on which you must have lots of scary knowledge to impart, Carl—then forget about it.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.