Health & Science

UTMB Virologists Give Contagion Scientific Stamp of Approval

This weekend marks the opening of Contagion, the new feature from director Steven Soderbergh. The movie depicts a global epidemic of a killer respiratory virus. KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel watched the movie along with three top infectious-disease scientists from UTMB. She wanted to get their opinion on how accurate the movie really was.

(clip from trailer)

The movie fairly sizzles with suspense. But how accurate is it scientifically?

The last big film about infectious disease was Outbreak, in 1995. That movie preyed on fears about Ebola, but got thumbs-down from scientists for its lack of plausibility.  

So how did Contagion do?

“The whole story was based on a foundation of fact.”

That’s Dr. James LeDuc, the director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB.

“Right down to the green laboratory notebooks, that the people — I mean everybody at CDC that does this work has got those and that’s where you keep your notes. It’s just part of the culture. So the attention to the detail I thought was exceptional.”

(clip from trailer)

In the film, a virus jumps from bats to pigs to Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s in Hong Kong on business.

The UTMB scientists say it most resembles SARS or H1N1 — but a deadlier version of those.

Thomas Ksiazek directs the National Biodefense Training Center at UTMB. He says the movie got the basic biology right, but the timing wrong.

“The scale is completely out of whack.”

The movie shows scientists isolating the virus, developing a vaccine, and starting to manufacture it in matter of months.

Ksiazek says it would probably really take years.

“The business where they take it in the lab and within and afternoon or two, as I recall the clock, they’ve got answers that you’ll eventually arrive, but these things take a lot more time than that.”

But LeDuc says the film does a good job educating people about the real threats of emerging diseases and what it actually takes to contain them.   

“These kind of viruses do in fact happen. The fact that there are viruses in bats and in pigs and they can jump species and make people sick is absolutely true.”

LeDuc says the film might help taxpayers understand why the government, especially after 9/11, has ramped up research on bio-weapons and infectious disease.

“They can see the investments that have been made by the government in pandemic preparedness is not money wasted, that this kind of catastrophic event would have a devastating effect on the public in general.”

The scientists come off as heroes, leaving the role of villain to, um, a rogue journalist.

According to the film, the media, or at least greedy bloggers, can be dangerous vectors of infectious rumors and misinformation.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk , I’m Carrie Feibel.