Entertainment behind the scenes
How the ‘Contagion’ virus was born
By Peter Christian Hall
The opinions expressed are his own.
The most riveting player in Contagion, the star-laden thriller about a global pandemic, is a virus — the so-called MEV-1 paramyxovirus that an American businesswoman spreads from Hong Kong to Minneapolis in the movie’s opening sequence. The bug that emerged from years of brainstorming by top scientific and creative minds has itself become an overnight superstar.
Contagion’s proprietary serial killer — the offspring of related viral strains from a bat and a pig — started out its scripted life as a souped-up avian influenza. “Flu seemed the worst-case pandemic to talk about,” says Laurie Garrett, an emerging-disease expert and bestselling author (The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust) who in 2008 began working closely with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns on at least 30 script drafts.
“A tremendous amount of work went into coming up with a very detailed scenario about how all the elements around the world would respond if we had a truly virulent 1918-type flu.” The Great Pandemic that accompanied World War I infected more than half a billion people and killed well over 50 million, most of them aged 16 to 40.
When nature surprised Garrett and Burns with the 2009 swine flu pandemic, they quickly realized Novel H1N1 wasn’t going to be virulent enough to hold the public’s interest in “a flu movie.”
Garrett, who had covered the 2003 SARS epidemic in China, urged Burns to refocus on so-called zoonotic viruses that cross directly between people and animals, as the bubonic plague and West Nile Virus did and which SARS is believed to have done. Microbial crossovers can occur when people disrupt a natural environment and come into close contact with animals that carry viruses to which humans have no immunity.
“Scott and I talked a lot about bats and the deeply profound stress on local bat populations,” says Garrett. “They are the great pollinators. Fruit bats are so stressed by the combination of apparent rising temperatures in the upper canopy of the rain forest and human encroachment that they are increasingly going into human areas in search of food. They’re starving, basically–and passing ancient viruses, via either their saliva [when they feed] or their urine.” Viral crossover can take place when their fluids come into contact with food being consumed by pigs or humans.
Now the filmmakers needed a plausible recombination of related viruses from bats and pigs — a concept strikingly illustrated in a sequence at the end of Contagion.
Enter Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. A neurologist who had traveled to China to fight SARS, Lipkin has identified more than 400 hitherto-unknown viruses.
Drawing on an array of known paramyxovirus crossovers in Asia, he and his team designed what they dubbed MEV-1 — a deadly, highly communicable strain that strikes the brain and lung, triggering dramatic convulsions for the camera. They constructed the production models that appear in the movie.
Visits to Lipkin’s lab at Columbia proved so compelling that Burns and director Steven Soderberg modeled one after it in Contagion – and even named the movie lab’s director, played by Elliot Gould, “Ian.” During production, Lipkin taught various stars how to perform scientific and medical tasks, self-inject experimental vaccine (as pioneering vaccine developer Maurice Hilleman once did), and stage a fatal seizure. He even attended the movie’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 3.
By then, H5N1 bird flu was adding to the buzz around Contagion. On August 29 the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization issued an alert about a mutant strain of H5N1 that had evaded poultry vaccines and was spreading in Southeast Asia. Human casualties were up in Cambodia. In turn, this drove up the price of shares in companies that might benefit from heightened anxiety about a pandemic.
Fear happens to be Contagion’s backup virus. Stirred by a venal blogger who peddles both hysteria and an unproven remedy for MEV-1, pandemic dread prompts the movie’s still-healthy Americans to panic, riot, and loot. The movie’s tagline is “nothing spreads like fear.”
As publicity for Contagion went viral, links to the movie’s trailer flooded the message boards of so-called flu stocks. One poster on the Yahoo! board of a small vaccine maker whose shares had just risen 50% on the H5N1 alert went so far as to claim that TimeWarner — parent of Warner Bros., which is distributing Contagion – had acquired 300,000 shares in the vaccine company. The message asked: “Will someone finally explain why!?” (TimeWarner spokeswoman Mallory Zalkin says the company owns no such shares, and so far Contagion fever hasn’t done much for the flu stocks.)
For her part, Garrett still keeps an eye on H5N1. She has just published I Heard the Sirens Scream, an e-book about 9/11 and what she portrays as a grossly mishandled hunt for the source of the fatal anthrax virus mailing that followed. But she says the virus that currently concerns her most is one that few Americans have heard of.
“We tend to think only in terms of things that directly affect human health,” she says. “I’m following a weird strain of rust virus that’s attacking wheat crops around the world. So far, there’s no resistance. Worst-case scenario, the world has no wheat.” Now that’s something to really worry about.
Peter Christian Hall is a New York-based writer whose novel about an avian flu pandemic, American Fever: A Tale of Romance & Pestilence, will be published in October.
PHOTO : Actress Marion Cotillard poses for a picture as she arrives at the premiere of “Contagion” in New York City September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Kena Betancur