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Uh-oh: Scientists say film ‘Contagion’ is for real
_The fictional virus kills more than 1 in 5 of the people it infects. That’s extremely high for an epidemic that goes global. The infamous Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 _ used as the modern-day measuring stick for a terrible international contagion _ killed more like 1 in 100. Something this deadly and fast-moving has never materialized, possibly because a bug that kills too efficiently limits its ability to spread because its victims don’t have much time to make contact with many other people.
_When a vaccine is released to the public, distribution of initially limited supplies was decided through a lottery based on date of birth. In reality, health officials would prioritize vaccine for people who were deemed most susceptible to the virus. Also at the head of the line would be health-care workers and others essential to keeping emergency response systems running. The movie didn’t indicate measures like that.
_As a vaccine to protect against the new disease is being developed, the movie seems to suggest that initial human testing of it hinges largely on a CDC scientist injecting herself and then visiting her diseased father’s bedside to see if she gets sick. Officials say a more realistic portrayal would show weeks or months of safety and effectiveness testing in many thousands of volunteers.
Also, “we don’t inject ourselves with (experimental) vaccines,” said Dr. Ermias Belay, a CDC official who oversees lab scientists handling dangerous pathogens.
Lipkin was involved with the movie for years and even reviewed film clips during production. When an Associated Press reporter reviewed the list of unrealistic points with him, he responded; “It’s a movie.”
But he also chafed at the idea that this kind of global epidemic won’t occur just because we haven’t seen one before. “Nobody expected Nipah. Nobody expected HIV. Nobody expected SARS,” he said.
One other significant plot point seems pretty implausible, too _ how well the epidemic investigation goes.
When new infections start popping up in multiple cities at about the same time, finding the origin can be a nearly impossible task. Yet the movie’s disease detectives zero in on the “index case” very quickly.
“In a real-world investigation, that would be a lucky guess,” said Dr. Douglas Hamilton, who heads the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.
In their discussions about the movie this week, some CDC officials are making a point of noting that recent budget cuts are threatening their ability and that of state and local health departments to respond as well as the movie portrays. Just one CDC investigator assigned to the scene of a major outbreak?
“Maybe this reflects the future,” said Dr. Ali Khan, the agency’s director of emergency preparedness.
CDC information on Nipah virus: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/spb/mnpages/dispages/nipah.htm
By Brahma Chellaney
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