The Real Science Behind Hollywood's Disease-Scare Movie Contagion

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Contagion isn't just a giant PSA for hand washing, because a virus kills millions of people. Steven Soderbergh's film is all about heroic epidemiologists fighting a pandemic. But could this Hollywood apocalypse actually happen?

We interviewed screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, The Bourne Ultimatum) to uncover the science behind this film. What real-life epidemiologists influenced this film? Does the CDC concur with what was shown on screen? Minor spoilers ahead...

Did you do any research with the Center for Disease Control? Is this the actual way the government would respond to an outbreak of this size? What was your process for researching this movie?


I spent a lot of time at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. And I spent a lot of time talking to some really impressive scientists and epidemiologists. There's a guy named Dr. Ian Lipkin, who is one of the world's foremost virologists. Ian is at Columbia University at their school of Public Health. He was sort of my main mentor on all things virus related. I was introduced to him by someone named Dr. Larry Brilliant. Larry Brilliant is a fascinating character who saw the last case of smallpox in India. He's kind of given credit for chasing small pose off the planet. If you go online and watch his TED Talk, that was one of the first points of entry for me on this. He has an amazing talk about how diseases proliferate and how viruses do this really interesting progression through the world.

Dr. Larry Brilliant's TED Talk

What was the most significant thing that you learned through your research that was important to include in the Contagion script?


This whole concept of the "R0" (PDF) that we went to great pains to explain through Kate Winslet's character, when she explained it to the bureaucrats and hopefully to the audience, is that there is kind of a quantifiable… there's an equation that you can do with these things, where you get the rate of transmission. Where you can talk about how how many people are susceptible, what the incubation period is, what the means of transmission is? It doesn't take much, if you think about a certain disease that may have an incubation period of three or four days with people that are transmissible even if they're not symptomatic. Then you get from Patient Zero to a billion in 30 steps. That whole math equation of squaring things.


That, to me, is so terrifying: that in 120 days, you could go from zero people to a billion people on the planet [who are] sick. What would that look like? Because when you have a billion people sick, this is where it gets trickier. People have done some modeling, but it's all conjecture. If a billion people are sick, how many people stop going to work? If people stop going to work, how many social services tip over. It's hard to know the tipping point of a lot of these things. It's a relatively new area of science called threat assessment. If can really, for lack of a better word, fuck us up. After 9/11, I think two people died from anthrax, but it shut down the airline industry. And it stopped Congress. That will do that, but thousands and thousands of people die every year from the flu, and still a lot of people won't get vaccinated.

How accurate is the government's response in Contagion to real life?

Very accurate. I think what's been really gratifying to Steven and I so far, is Dr. Anthony Fauci who is the head of The National Institutes of Health has seen the movie, and loved it. The CDC were big fans of the movie. We shot at their site. They all took a good look at the science, and felt that what we were doing, as accurate. That was what my charge was and what Steven's charge was for everyone that we spoke to about the movie. The movie needs to exist within the realm of the possible.


On that note, what about the things that came later on in the film after the outbreak has spread throughout the nation. The wristbands that certain characters wore to show that they had been vaccinated, is this a program that the US has in waiting just in case?

That's stuff that I made up. Again, I made it up and when I talked to scientists I would ask if this is possible and they would respond that, "Well you've now gone over the event horizon. Yes, at this point we're not sure what many of these things would do. There are so many variables. When you're talking about a cataclysm of that level, there's going to be a lot of invention that occurs as well." Would there be wristbands, I don't know? We have to come up with some way of identifying who had been vaccinated.


That part was really odd to me, because I realized at a certain point I'd kind of gone off the map. Because we haven't seen a virus like that. And they said that there are so many variables at that point, so you're free to come up with stuff. So I don't know. But it's rewarding, to me, that everything felt possible.

Why did you choose to have the vaccine to be inhaled instead of injected?

They're doing that more and more. I know that the H1-N1 vaccine was aerosolized. One of the reasons why I did that, and it's a little bit alluded to in the script, if you had that much social breakdown one of the things that you're going to lose are a lot of medical people. One of the things that would happen in society is you would need to retrain survivors to provide medical care. People who had inherent immunity would need to take care of the sick. It's a lot safer to just spray something in someone's nose, than give someone a needle and tell them to give another person an injection. The supposition is that that's something even a laymen can do.


Were there any virus movie stereotypes you didn't want to include in Contagion, like hunting down the host?


I hope we didn't ditch that. Marion Cotillard's job is to work backwards to find the origin of the virus. And in our film that's... well, I'm not going to say what that is. In epidemiology, you need to go back and find Patient Zero, and find the moment when the virus jumped. Because it gives you a lot of information about the nature of the virus, and it can also help you prevent it from happening again. Marion's character is doing the investigative work to go back and find Patient Zero and find the origin. The thing Steven and I wanted to avoid was: I didn't want the virus to be divine retribution, or the result of a military conspiracy. I wanted it to be the result of life on Earth in its most mundane. To me there's something more frightening about what really truly happens in the world. Which is we're invading spaces maybe we haven't been before, and we're coming in contact with things in the plant and animal world that we've never touched before. And some of those things are really dangerous.

There are a lot of people who make their livelihood — and I'm not placing judgment, for better or for worse — interacting with livestock. Pigs and chickens and all these animals are opportunities for virus that our species haven't seen before, to come in contact with.


You also touch a little on privatized science versus tax-funded science in the film, what was the point you were trying to make with that?

There was a lot more of that at one point. There's a version of the movie that's 45 minutes longer that gets deeper into that complicated issue, what private science does when it's driven by profit. It's not a secret that if you're a white male with heart disease or cholesterol, there's a lot of drugs for you. Or if you have depression, there's a lot of drugs for you. But some of these other things that exist in the world, that may not be as profitable, may not get the same attention from the scientific community. That is part of what goes on. And that's why it's important that we have vaccine programs that the government continues to fund. One of the things that Dr. Lipkin would tell you, and he knows this more than I do, what he would say is that our apparatus for creating vaccines is really really out dated. And we need to think about that.


Will we ever get to see that part of the movie?

I'm sure Steven will throw some additional scenes on the DVD, but I don't know maybe he will one day.