Contagion mostly accurate, though it exaggerates

Contagion, starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gweneth Paltrow, centers around a pandemic virus causing people to violently die of seizures. The disease kills several in Hong Kong before the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization begin to act on it. Eventually, the virus, dubbed MEV-1, causes so many casualties that large scale quarantines are introduced, food and water is rationed, and mass graves are formed. Matt Damon, husband of one of the first few to contract the disease, is thought to be immune to it. Within four months, a vaccine is manufactured and distributed worldwide after a researcher tests a compound on herself. All ends up being well, with the vaccine being distributed on a lottery system based on birth date and the CDC keeping a sample in its highest security lab.

The film’s chief science consultant was Dr. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and “master virus hunter,” as called by the New York Times. He designed the MEV-1 virus for Contagion. Though the movie never explicitly states the meaning behind the acronym, it stands for Meningoencephalitis Virus. The virus was largely modeled after the real Nipah virus found in Bangladesh in 1999. Both are paramyxoviruses causing similar symptoms. In Contagion, MEV-1 causes meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of the brain and its surrounding tissues which can cause fever, tremors, and convulsions leading to death in roughly four or five days; Nipah, however, causes fever and headaches which lead to a coma in a span of over two weeks.

Apart from the virology, the movie strives to depict the CDC as naturally and accurately as possible. Filming actually took place on the CDC campus in the parking garage, front gate, and lobby of Building 19, which houses the center’s Visitor Center. Furthermore, CDC insiders met with the film’s director to build a set which “precisely reproduces” the Emergency Operations Center.

The public health jargon thrown around is on the ball too. Terms like BSL-4, R nought, and EISO are all positions and terminology used by CDC officials when investigating an epidemic. As Gweneth Paltrow’s character explains, the R-0 is the level of infectivity of a certain disease, with the 0 changing to represent how many are infected because of one instance of a virus – smallpox, for example, would yield about three cases for every one infected, therefore rendering its reproductive rate R-3. EISO stands for Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, one who goes into the field to gather information on an epidemic disease. Gweneth Paltrow’s character is an EISO, although no real life EISO has ever been recorded as dying because of the disease being investigated like she did. Finally, BSL-4 is a security storage level indicating the highest level of laboratory containment, used for highly infectious organisms for which there is no known cure; it is where MEV-4 is stored at the movie’s conclusion.

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