‘Contagion’ could come true, says leading scientist

Dr Ian Lipkin warns of increasing threat from infectious disease

Virus thriller Contagion might not be so far from reality, a leading scientist who advised on the film has warned.

Steven Soderbergh‘s film, which stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, charts the emergence of a deadly infectious disease that quickly becomes a global pandemic. But Dr Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology at New York’s Columbia University, has warned of a very real risk of the film’s story coming true.

According to Lipkin, greater international trade and travel, urbanisation, loss of wildlife habitats and inadequate development and production of vaccines have made virus outbreaks an increasing threat.


He told The Observer: “Scientists have been accused of overreacting and crying wolf over the threat of virus outbreaks after the influenza pandemic of 2009. 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.”

Lipkin continued: “Our vulnerability to such diseases has been heightened by the growth in international travel and the globalisation of food production. In addition, deforestation and urbanisation continue to displace wildlife, increasing the probability that wild creatures will come into contact with domesticated animals and humans.”

He warned that societies need to do more to combat the threat: {People need to understand that science is critical to address these kinds of challenges and respond in real time. 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 we need more scientists.

“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 is not against another country but against microbes.”

Contagion was released in the UK on Friday (October 21). You can watch the trailer at the top of the page.