Courtesy Candice Hoffman, CDC
Actress Kate Winslet, left, consults about the technical accuracy of the new movie "Contagion" with Dr. Ian Lipkin, center, director of the Mailman School of Public Health's Center for Infection and Immunity and Stuart Nichol, chief of the Viral Special Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 9/9/2011 7:58:32 AM ET 2011-09-09T11:58:32

The normally staid scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded positively star-struck this week as they awaited release of a new movie in which it’s up to them to save the world from a killer outbreak.

Tickets to a special Thursday screening of “Contagion,” the just-released Steven Soderbergh film about a deadly pandemic virus, had to be doled out via lottery to eager CDC staffers, who already had acted as extras and hobnobbed with actors during filming.

Even Dr. Ali Khan, a rear admiral and assistant surgeon general who leads the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, admitted to a bit of Hollywood awe.

“I had fun chatting with Kate Winslet. I drew an epi curve for her,” he said, referring to the graphic representation of infection cases used to track an epidemic.

Winslet plays a CDC researcher in the movie. The film's team caused a buzz at the agency's Atlanta offices starting about two years ago, when the crew sought technical advice and filming locations to add authenticity to the movie, said Dave Daigle, an associate director for communications with the CDC's preparedness office.

During the course of the filming, staffers decided that Winslet’s real-life counterpart would likely be Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases who served frequently as the agency’s spokeswoman during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Fictional-but-plausible deadly virus
But on the eve of the film’s nationwide release, CDC curiosity had reached a fever pitch, particularly about the source of the fictional-but-plausible deadly virus that quickly circles the globe.

“We were wondering and discussing what the disease might be and rumors are flying about,” Daigle said. “If anyone knows, they have been sworn to secrecy. Most of us think it will not be a pandemic flu, or if it is, it will be mutated.”

Reviews of the movie depict the scourge as a previously unknown virus that leaps from bats to pigs to people. In interviews, Dr. Ian W. Lipkin, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health infectious disease expert who served as the movie’s technical adviser, said he suggested that the bug be modeled after Nipah virus, a fatal South Asian infection that has been known to migrate from animals to people.

That makes scientific sense to Khan, who says he views television shows and movies about outbreaks with a critical eye.

Review: Realistic 'Contagion' infected with terror

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“Usually, for these movies, I play a guessing game: What’s the animal reservoir?” Khan said, referring to the species that might first host a fatal virus. “I didn’t think it was going to be birds. If something bad is going to come for us, it’s going to come from a bat.”

Khan says he looks to see whether movie-makers get the science right, but he also checks for what he calls “the silly factor.”

Story: Scariest films are those that could really happen

“Does the CDC have a good-looking van with an electron microscope mounted inside? Do we have a CDC helicopter? Do we have the black suburbans?” he said. “Is CDC going to call in an air strike?”

The answer, most often, is no — although some CDC movie fantasies have come true. In the 1995 film “Outbreak,” which starred Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, the CDC’s fictional disaster center was way more posh than anything that existed at the time. Sixteen years later, the agency now boasts an impressive command center of its own.

Khan said he expects “Contagion” to do a thoughtful job of portraying CDC staffers and the work they do. He appreciates the attention, particularly in an era of declining federal budgets and growing threats from problems most Americans never consider.

“I enjoy the fact that CDC is increasingly shown as the good guys,” Khan said. “It reminds people that not only are we at risk of a novel pandemic, but also that CDC protects them from routine threats every day."

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Video: Matt Damon’s ‘Contagion’ portrays medical nightmare

  1. Closed captioning of: Matt Damon’s ‘Contagion’ portrays medical nightmare

    >>> winner matt damon , one of the stars of the new thrill ever "contagion." in the film his wife returns home from a business trip and is stricken with a lethal illness.

    >> honey? no, no, no. stay there, clark. no, just go -- go up to your room, honey. honey, honey.

    >> her eventual death sets the medical community racing to find a cure for a virus that quickly becomes a pandemic. matt damon , good morning.

    >> hey, man.

    >> we've known each other for a while, right?

    >> yeah, years now.

    >> so you know i'm a guy that uses purell six, seven times a day, right?

    >> yeah.

    >> why would you do this to me?

    >> this movie, you're not going to like this movie.

    >> i saw it yesterday. i haven't taken this off since. this is -- this is scary stuff.

    >> yeah, yeah, scary because, i mean, well, steven who directed it really wanted to make it a completely realistic pandemic movie. rather than doing an over the top thing, do the most accurate science we can and that will be the most terrifying.

    >> you're a little like me and your wife nicknamed you red alert because you're constantly saying what can go wrong. after you dive into this for six months do you walk away confident or panicked about what could happen?

    >> good question. i think confident.

    >> that we can handle it?

    >> i'm optimistic. one big take away for us is that all of these scientists who work at the cdc and who, amazing.

    >> like crime solvers.

    >> they're really competent, capable, just dedicated group of people. and so, you know, the doctor who was the neurologist who worked with us who consulted for us, he's the guy they will send samples to. so i feel like there's a great group of minds that really just are kind of constantly vigilant about protecting us. so that's the good part.

    >> the bad part is that how quickly something can spread.

    >> yeah.

    >> the movie makes a great deal of travel. we live in an age where people jump on a plane and go around the world in one day. and along that route they could spread something like this to countless people.

    >> sure, yeah, if it was the right kind of thing.

    >> the movie talks about that. and then it goes into the other area. not only the logistics of the spread of a virus but the ethics involved. how much information should people have. how much is too much. who should perhaps benefit from a situation like this. what's the message that you want people to take away?

    >> well, i think don't panic, is a good one. i mean, that's the quandary that a lot of these people that have this information, how do we disseminate this information in a way that creates the least amount of panic because the panic can be the most dangerous thing. when we think about anthrax that killed two people and shut down the entire airline industry. so if -- if we can't kind of take a deep breath and count to ten and kind of make a reasonable assessment of what we need to do. and the media is a big part of that.

    >> i was going to say that. there's a slight touch of that in the movie. we have covered in real life things like sars and bird flu .

    >> right.

    >> do you think, because i've often tried to analyze it's, that we make too much of these things and scare people too much or would we be criticized if we didn't prepare things.

    >> you have to strike a balance.

    >> like the hurricane that just came.

    >> right. but you're under pressure to get people to tune in, but in a real situation like that, i think the media would have to resist the temptation to sell the panic because that could be putting gas loon lien on a fire.

    >> no question, buzz on this. what's happening with the lib liberace movie?

    >> what is it about him that you work so well with?

    >> he's just -- he's -- i could talk your ear off act him. he's a a brilliant director. this movie, you know, he used just two lenses, used a 35 and 18 for master shots and then he used the cameras at eye level the entire time. it moves only when characters move. he's a established a bunch of rules for his. he's rigid about forum and he's just kind of doing it at a level that very few people can and ever have been able to do it. and so when i'm standing next to him he's directing, i just learn so much. and i'm always very proud of the movies that we make.

    >> you're also involved, shooting another movie right now. i would like to they thi your hairstyle is an homage to me but it more has something to do with the role you are playing.

    >> it is. but it is called the laure, you know that.

    >> me.

    >> what is that movie?

    >> it's going to be out at 2013 . the guy that directed "district 9." he's a fantastic director.

    >> big day tomorrow. girls head back to school .

    >> yes.

    >> one heads to school for the first time.

    >> right.

    >> and the others back to school ?

    >> yes.

    >> is red alert going to be there?

    >> red alert is going to be there. a lot of dropoffs tomorrow.

    >> do you like that part?

    >> i love it. i love the -- you know, here because it's walking to school , i used to walk to school when i was a kid. i just love that part of it. and just -- particularly the first day, you know, the jitters.

    >> do they have the jitters?

    >> the 3-year-old doesn't. she doesn't know where she's going.

    >> what time is snack time .

    >> she still doesn't know she's going to school . but we have a seventh grader starting a new school . and you know, my kine kindergarten is


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