- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - Yes, it could happen. But it’s a stretch.

“Contagion,” a Hollywood thriller that opened last weekend, rocketed to No. 1 at the box office through its gripping tale of a fictional global epidemic driven by a new kind of virus. Audiences have gasped in horror at what happens to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Before it was out, the movie made real-life disease investigators anxious, too, though for a different reason: They had worried the filmmakers would take so many artistic liberties with the science that the result would be an incredible movie that was … not credible.

Well, cue the applause.

“It’s very plausible,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would investigate such an outbreak.

A new virus jumping from animals to humans? Nothing fictional about that. Global spread of a disease in a few days? In this age of jet travel, absolutely. A societal meltdown if things get bad? Plan on it.

Yikes. The only bit of relief here is that several experts think the odds are pretty long that a new virus could be both so deadly and contagious at the same time.

The team behind the film used several expert consultants and went to other lengths to get scientific details correct. That included working with esteemed Columbia University epidemiologist Dr. W. Ian Lipkin to create the fictional MEV-1 virus. It’s modeled on the Nipah virus _ a dangerous bug first seen in Malaysia a dozen years ago that spread from pigs to farmers.

Efforts also involved actress Kate Winslet sitting down with a female CDC disease investigator so she could correctly copy such things as the investigators clothes, mannerisms and even how the scientist might wear her hair on a field assignment.

Overall health officials say they were very pleased with what resulted. During an advance screening for CDC employees in Atlanta last week, some in the audience laughed appreciatively to see visual details and even lingo that they never imagined would be used in a mass-market motion picture.

“It was very accurate. It kind of made us all chuckle because there were things that we thought only people at CDC might get,” said Laura Gieraltowski, an expert in foodborne illnesses.

Indeed, CDC officials have embraced the film. The agency allowed the movie’s makers to film at their main campus _ the first time the agency has allowed a major motion picture studio such access. And CDC officials have opened up their schedules for media interviews, panel appearances and live Internet chats to talk about the movie and potential real-life contagions.

It’s a far better reception than their reaction to “Outbreak,” a popular 1995 movie starring Dustin Hoffman, the last time Hollywood took a major stab at telling a story about a nation-threatening, non-zombie epidemic. Like “Contagion,” that film had a respected director and an all-star cast, but the scientific miscues were laughable. Some experts still shake their heads at how much time was spent finding an infected monkey and how little time it took _ seemingly just a few minutes _ to make, test and distribute a life-saving vaccine.

“Contagion” fares far better in the experts’ eyes. That said, the scenario painted in the new movie is also considered highly unlikely. A thriller telling a complex story in roughly two hours, it portrays some things that are doubtful at best. Among them:

_The government dispatches only one disease investigator to Minnesota to check out the outbreak. In reality, the government would throw a lot more people at an emerging problem like this. When the first two swine flu cases were reported in San Diego in 2009, neither of them fatalities, the CDC sent five such scientists along with other staff.

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