Sunday, September 11, 2011


Of Bats and Pigs and the CDC

Contagion is the new virus thriller from director Steven Soderbergh about MEV-1, a vicious, spanking-new hybrid virus—part bat, part pig—that spreads worldwide like the flu and is often fatal within a few days, usually after the victims spike a high fever, then experience seizures and, finally, frothing at the mouth. The film spans more than four months, and once the virus invades the HIV/AIDS population, it becomes even more virulent. 

The fast-paced movie makes coughing scarier than Kathy Bates in Misery and sports a great cast.  Gwyneth Paltrow is pale, wan patient zero in the U.S., having been infected on a business trip to Hong Kong; Matt Damon is well cast as her beleaguered husband; Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard portray dedicated epidemiologists; Laurence Fishburne imbues his role of the hardworking Centers for Disease Control deputy director with gravitas; Jennifer Ehle plays a fearless CDC vaccine researcher and the film’s number-one heroine; Elliott Gould has fun as an intrepid non-government scientist defying CDC orders; and Jude Law sinks his teeth into the juicy role of an unscrupulous blogger who sets the world into an early panic and screams “Print media is dying” to a newspaper editor who won’t give him an assignment. Later, when the number of unique visitors to "Truth Serum Now"his doom-and-gloom blog of fake cures and misinformationexceeds the mounting death toll, he becomes positively gleeful.

As MEV-1 and panic spread, food becomes scarce, stores are looted and fires set, streets and airports empty out, and undertakers won’t bury the dead as Earth morphs into a gigantic ghost town. To increase their chances of survival, people don masks and gloves and practice what’s called “social distancing” while CDC scientists risk their lives in a race to come up with an effective vaccine.  Oddly no politicians weigh in during the movie, and the President is soon whisked to a secure underground bunker; that's the last time he's mentioned.  Contagion is all about weary scientists who spout phrases like "chimeric," "revert to wild type" and "attenuated."

The film’s only obvious misstep is the disappearance of Marion Cotillard’s character.  She's kidnapped by Chinese who claim first dibs on a vaccine for their nearly wiped-out village—and use her for collateral.  But so much is happening round the globe that when the film finally pivots back to Cotillard, someone in the audience called out:  “I thought she was dead already.” 

Contagion effectively pieces together the casual connections of the first victims.  Even more satisfying is witnessing how the two virus halves first met.  Both are the most gratifying and eerie aha! moments since the critical instant in The Sixth Sense when you realize that Bruce Willis’s character has been dead for most of the movie.  

Why am I giving a mini review of Contagion on CFS Central?  

  1. Is it because I snickered and threw popcorn at the screen every time another brave government official appeared?

  1. Is it because I wondered how the CDC’s Beth Unger would fare in the role Jennifer Ehle played? See photos, below.

  1. Is it because another worldwide plague is already here and it’s not MEV-1, but rather ME?

  1. Is it because I’m wondering where the heck are all the intrepid non-government researchers like Elliott Gould’s character, who’d defy government orders for the sake of mankind?

  1. Is it because the film gives bloggers a bad name?

  1. Is it because the scientist that Kate Winslet portrays believably utters the word “fomite”?

  1. Is it because a frightened big brown bat flew inside my house during hurricane Irene, and I had bacon in the refrigerator? 

  1. Is it because what’s missing in the film is a cameo from British psychiatrist Simon Wessely in which he’d call MEV-1 a biosocial construct and complain that MEV-afflicted patients were sending him nasty emails and trying to breathe on him?

  1. Is it because the film mentions Dr. Barry Marshall, who drank a Petri dish of H. pylori in 1984 because he was convinced the bacterium caused ulcers, but nobody believed him?

  1. Is it because Jude Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede—pronounced “Crum-weedy,” in the most hyperbolic illustration of nominative determinism ever—bemoans the pathetic lack of information on the CDC website? 

All of the above are true, except for number one: I don’t like popcorn.

Postscript: Patient advocate Lilly Meeham emailed that virus hunter Dr. Ian Lipkin, who's overseeing the big XMRV study, served as an adviser to Contagion.  In fact, Elliott Gould's character is based on Lipkin!  Thank you, Lilly.  Lipkin explained in an interview that MEV-1 is not that big a stretch from the truth and is similar to the Nipah virus, which was discovered during an encephalitis outbreak in Malaysia among Chinese pig farmers. "The pigs had been infected by bats," Lipkin said.  "In outbreaks in Bangladesh where people don't farm pigs, the virus went directly from bats to man via palm sap collected in trees and sold as a beverage. What was different in Bangladesh is that there were reports of human-to-human transmission."

            Ehle                                   Unger


  1. MER-1, nope MRVs AKA human gammaretrovirses. Ha! do they even care!

  2. I choose reason 7. Did you subsequently cook and eat that bacon, and how are you feeling now, and how is the bat faring?

    Great review. I'll look forward to catching it on DVD when available, and being a big fan of popcorn, I'll throw some at the screen for you.

  3. Thanks for that gave me a few chuckles.

    By the way Bats are taken care of better than ME patients in the UK - they are a protected species.

    I will have to wait on the DVD to see if in true Hollywood Style the CDC wins the day - so no spoilers please.

  4. "Social distancing" - love that term. We did that years ago when we were still able to go out!

    Great piece Mindy!

  5. Hmmm. So we show up in wheelchairs at movie houses with signs saying, "CDC doesn't want you to know what we have" ...

    When I first heard about this movie, I had to laugh because we are so laughably ill-equipped to handle a fast-moving virus - we're apparently unable to handle a slow one.

    Well done, as usual.


  6. Great comment Mary. It is entirely correct. We are so ill equipped that we have to hide the real virus.

  7. Seizures, frothing at the mouth, and death shortly after infection-- that's what we apparently are missing. There won't be a blockbuster movie about us. We have the audacity to linger on and on with invisible symptoms and take our time to die. Of course, that's our fault!

  8. Thanks Mindy!

    Love your review. I thought how the movie will bring not only attention to the science and threats but also fear to the general public.

    Now we'll be able to explain how a stealth virus already in the population can result in a neuro-immune disease disabling disease or cancer.

    Perhaps once the movie comes out, there will be a website where people can post comments.

    What an opportunity to tell the world about the third human retrovirus!

    ~ JT

  9. Since we don't demonstratively foam at the mouth would it help if I selectively spat on a few folks?

    I'm sure we could compile a few to go on the spitworthy list.

    I could think of a ton of things to do with the bats and bacon combo as well.

  10. Did the vaccine industry fund the film?

  11. That's pretty funny, in a gallows-humor kind of way. Yeah, we'd be pretty ill-equipped to respond to a fast-moving virus, but at least the motivation would be there to try. With few exceptions, even people who believe ME is real thing don't seem to feel a sense of urgency about it.

  12. Speaking of bats, right now horses are dying in Australia, of a virus spread by the saliva of fruit-eating bats. Bat saliva, urine and feces fall on vegetation below the trees where they are eating fruits, and remains on fallen fruits, where horses eat the vegetation and fruits.

    People get it from the saliva of horses. It's called the Hendra virus, after the locale where it was first identified in 1994. And now a dog has been found to be infected with it.

  13. Isn't it interesting that just about a week or so ago the CDC released the news that two children in the Midwest came down with a hybrid of the H1N1 flu strain and that a new vaccine would have to be made.

  14. "Is it because another worldwide plague is already here and it’s not MEV-1, but rather ME?"

    With all due respect, you're embarrassing yourself.

    I've had ME for fourteen years now, but even I know that ME isn't a plague. It's not infectious (or else it would be a plague), and the numbers of those sick would be 10-20 times higher than they are now.

    If you (and research scientists) would spend more time looking at environmental factors that keep our immune systems dysfunctional and screw up methylation,etc., then you'd have more answers, and yes, better treatment.



  15. @ Patty,

    Respectfully, stop getting your information from blogs and the back of cereal boxes. ME presents as an infectious illness. You can read published studies on PubMed about historical epidemics and outbreaks of ME in the United Kingdom, USA, New Zealand, Iceland and elsewhere. They describe the symptomatology and pathology better than modern studies because they examined and listened to patients more during that era. They even calculated the incubation period of the illness.

    There are roughly a million and a half persons with ME in the USA and United Kingdom. A plague? Absolutely!


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