Pandemic movie plot no longer in realms of fantasy

It's a classic Hollywood tale: scientists race against time to decode a killer virus that is spreading across the world.

But the scientist who advised Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh on his new thriller, Contagion, says the events and themes of his latest film carry a very real warning for our times.

Dr Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology at New York's Columbia University, was recruited as senior technical adviser on Soderbergh's blockbuster which charts the growth of a deadly infectious disease that ignites a pandemic.

Scientists are first alerted when Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, becomes sick after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and dies two days later. As the virus quickly spreads and the death toll rises, it's down to a team of scientists - including Dr Erin Mears, played by Kate Winslet - to decode the virus so a vaccine can be produced.

According to Lipkin, the plot is anything but unrealistic. Virus outbreaks are an increasing threat in the 21st century because of greater international trade and travel, urbanisation, loss of wildlife habitats and low investment in infrastructure for surveillance, vaccine production and distribution.

"Scientists have been accused of overreacting and crying wolf over the threat of virus outbreaks after the influenza pandemic of 2009," Lipkin told the Observer.

"Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] didn't progress beyond a few locations, but outbreaks and pandemics will occur and we need to get our heads out of the sand and realise the real risks that we face. More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans.

"Our vulnerability to such diseases has been heightened by growth in international travel and globalisation of food production. Also, deforestation and urbanisation continue to displace wildlife, increasing the probability that wild creatures will come in contact with domesticated animals and humans."

Lipkin says societies need to be more proactive in combating the dangers.

"People need to understand that science is critical to address these kinds of challenges and respond in real time," he said.

"We need to be prepared. We need better bio-surveillance, with better detection and better ability to develop vaccines. However, our public health system is underfunded and overwhelmed, and we need more scientists."

Lipkin added: "When I was a kid, the launching of Sputnik made us aware that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the race for space. Now all of us are in a battle that is potentially devastating, only it's not against another country but against microbes".

In Contagion, Soderbergh draws on real-life disease outbreaks, including the 2003 Sars epidemic which started in Hong Kong and spread to 37 countries, infecting more than 8400 people and causing 916 deaths.

Lipkin assisted the World Health Organisation and the Chinese Ministry of Health in managing the outbreak, at some personal peril - he became ill and was quarantined on returning to the US.

"The events portrayed in the film are based on real experiences," said Lipkin. "For example, there are scenes in the movie where at the height of the pandemic the streets are deserted, there are food and supply shortages and political instability, and this directly comes out of my vivid memories of what it was like in Beijing during the Sars crisis.

"I was also able to advise actors from personal experience what it feels like to be quarantined - an eerie experience where you are behind glass and cut off from loved ones."

Lipkin is one of the world's foremost microbe hunters and over the past decade has identified more than 400 new viruses. But unlike British cosmologist Dr Martin Rees, who controversially predicted in his book, Our Final Hour, that civilisation had no more than a 50 per cent chance of surviving until 2100, Lipkin is an optimist.

"Since Sars, there's been increased investment to look at wildlife around the world and there's better integration between the different public health agencies both nationally and internationally," Lipkin said. "So there is reason to be optimistic, and I believe we can address the problems.

"We are one world - humans and animals - and we need to take care of one another. We also need to move away from technologies that slow down the production of vaccines so we can develop a vaccine in three months instead of six."

Contagion pays tribute to the scientists and health officials who dedicate their lives to solving the problem of emerging viruses.

One character is based on Italian scientist Carlo Urbani, the first to identify Sars who became infected with the disease while treating patients and died aged 46, leaving a wife and three children.

"The most moving portions of the film were those where I saw people very similar to people I've known, people who didn't have well-known names, who died in the service of science and public health," said Lipkin. "The film is in some ways a living memorial to them."

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