September 14, 2011

A new movie called Contagion opened last week and it has caused quite a stir in both public and scientific circles. I saw the film yesterday and have some thoughts. I would strongly recommend seeing the film if you can. The movie is about the sudden emergence of a new viral disease that is very much like a new strain of influenza. It is not influenza, but many of its characteristics are similar to it, so you can use the film to understand some things about influenza.

People ask me if the movie is realistic. Yes, I think it is, at least the first half of it when the pandemic is just starting. The second half shows the middle and end of the pandemic, which has not occurred in the US recently, so we have no way of knowing if it is accurate or not. What you see in the movie is pretty much the way hospitals and the CDC would react initially. The scenes of the CDC were shot on location. The characters in the film are very accurate portrayals of real microbiologists and epidemiologists. Everyone I work with looks like Kate Winslet (just kidding). They got all the terms and concepts right and pronounce all the words correctly. You can tell they had good coaching from expert consultants during the filming.

There are a couple of things in the film that I would question, but the writers made choices and I would not have made those choices. The film shows a cluster of cases in Minneapolis, and the investigation of those cases by the CDC representative (Ms. Winslet) faced some barriers and overall snottiness by the Minnesota Department of Health people. That would never have happened. The Minnesota Department of Health is probably the best in the nation. We in other states dream about being as good as they are.

The other thing I noticed had to do with the vaccine that researchers eventually produced. One of the researchers injected herself with an investigational vaccine before it was fully developed, and I don’t think that would have happened. Also, the film stated that an injectable subunit vaccine did not work but a live attenuated vaccine given intranasally did. The writers obviously drew from the current influenza vaccine situation for that. That is pretty unlikely; I think both vaccines would have worked, although they might have chosen the intranasal product because it could have been produced faster.

Those are about the only things I noticed in the movie that I would have done differently, after seeing it only once. I may watch it again and see if I can notice more.

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