'Contagion': believe the fearful possibility

Scientists here see a lot to like. Seattle, in fact, has a history that shows the reality of pandemics.

Crosscut archive image.

Matt Damon

Scientists here see a lot to like. Seattle, in fact, has a history that shows the reality of pandemics.

The film Contagion kills off 1 percent of everyone in the world — creating fear and panic as scientists try to find a cure for a fictional virus. It sounds like your basic Hollywood thriller, but that deadliness is not far-fetched, said two Seattle scientists at a recent discussion of the movie.

Tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria actually kill about 1 percent of South Africa's population each year, noted David Sherman, head of the tuberculosis program at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI).

"The movie should not move us to be scared. But it should move us to be concerned" said Ann Marie Kimball, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. Sherman said: "Some people will walk out of the theater scared, and I don't believe that is a bad thing." Sherman and Kimball discussed the movie with about 50 people at a program sponsored by  SBRI (Seattle BioMed) and the Northwest Science Writers Association.

Contagion is about the eruption of a strange new virus so deadly that it kills the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow shortly after she returns from a trip (she dies in the first 10 minutes of the movie). The film follows several story threads — scientists dealing with the painstakingly slow process of isolating and understanding the virus in order to create a vaccine; ordinary people trying to deal with a justifiable fear of the unknown; numerous moral questions with no clear right or wrong answers; the allure of an alternative medicine cure that may or may not work; the strengths and weaknesses of a federal bureaucracy that is needed to fight the virus.

Kimball and Sherman gave the film high marks for accuracy, especially on the epidemiological search to find the virus' origin, the arguments on how fast it will likely spread, how to isolate and grow it so a cure could be found, plus the numerous needed bureaucratic functions needed to create and distribute the cure. "I loved the way (the filmmakers) dealt with the tension," Sherman said.

The film closely mimicked what happened during the 2002-3 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, from Hong Kong. The world ended up with 8,422 cases of SARS, with 916 of the victims dying.

"The risks are real,," Sherman said. "There's no way you can avoid it because you can't shut down borders to viruses."

Kimball zeroed in on the film's question of how to distribute a steady, but limited supply of vaccines to a public in which everyone is clamoring to be at the head of the line. Lotteries, guilt, and kidnappings emerged. "I think the first-in-line thing is a really important part of the movie," Kimball said. The ban on handshakes and concerns about everyday spittle mimicked what would happen in a real epidemic, both Sherman and Kimball said.

They had quibbles with Contagion, to be sure. Sherman said the movie's plot moved faster than it would have occurred in real life. "It was sped up dramatically. No one wants to sit through the tedium in the lab to get to that exciting piece of useful information," he said. And neither Kimball and Sherman could figure out where Jude Law — playing an irritating, independent gadfly journalist — got his weird-looking plastic biohazard suit, or even how that suit worked.

Sherman and Kimball noted that Seattle lived through its own version of Contagion in 1918. The Spanish influenza epidemic spread from Boston to Puget Sound in late 1918. The death toll was 21 million worldwide, about 700,000 in the United States and at least 1,600 in Seattle. Theaters and schools were closed. Religious and public gatherings were banned — a ban that was blatantly ignored when World War I's armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918, according to HistoryLink.org. Wearing gauze masks became the law, a practice that also quickly fell apart with Armistice Day. Then the Spanish flu disappeared in 1919. Public rebellion against the anti-flu measures plus fallout from a 1919 workers strike led to Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson resigning and moving to California.

Another plot device in Contagion went against the proper protocols and common sense, but also has precedents in real life, Kimball and Sherman said. That's when a researcher, frustrated after 56 failed vaccines, for some reason decides to inject herself with the 57th experimental version and then expose herself to the virus. In 1984, Australian medical researcher Barry Marshall was trying to prove that peptic ulcers were caused by a type of bacteria rather than by spices and stress. After some failures to infect baby pigs Marshall drank a a liquid containing a bacterium culture from a petri dish, and developed gastritis, which disappeared a few days later. Follow-up challenges and research led to Marshall proving that a specific bacterium causes most peptic ulcers — which also gave him a Nobel Prize.

Another example took place in 1916. Researcher Joseph Goldberger — using volunteer Mississippi prison inmates as guinea pigs — came up with the theory that pellagra was caused by diet instead of by germs, a theory ultimately proven correct. But at that time, other scientists refused to accept that theory. So Goldberger and his assistant injected blood from pellagra patients into their own veins. They also rubbed the snot from pellagra patients' noses into their own noses and swallowed capsules holding scabs from a pellagra patient. This was later repeated with other volunteers, including Goldberger's wife, at sessions that Goldberger dubbed "filth parties." None of them got pellagra, according to the National Institutes of Health's literature on the subject.

While neither Kimball nor Sherman recommended such practices, Sherman and Kimball also said maverick scientists are important, adding diversity of input to what government scientists can find out. Contagion has an independent researcher ignoring a federal directive to stop his experiments because his lab did not have sufficient safeguards to prevent the disease from spreading. But that researcher ended up finding a vital clue to the fictional virus .

Kimball said : "I think one of the arguments of the film is that we need all the diversity we can get, but with some control over it."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8