Contagion and the Prophecy of Pandemic Planning
The 2011 film Contagion was conceived and shot in the wake of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, as the collaboration of director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. It belongs to a small collection of materials and events demonstrating strange, almost prophetic awareness of what has befallen us since 2019. For much of last year especially, it often felt as if we were locked inside the screenplay of this infernal film, waiting for the vaccines to save us in the final act.
Contagion is above all important, because it reveals the degree to which Corona has unfolded according to the advance planning of academics and public health bureaucrats, who have spent every year since the 2003 SARS outbreak feverishly scheming about The Next Pandemic. Over time the planning became so elaborate, and attracted the interest of so many people, that it came to resemble less and less a plan, and more and more a trap, which required only the right virus to spring it.
Like so much else in the realm of bio-defence and pandemic planning, Contagion has roots in the smallpox eradication campaign led by the World Health Organisation between 1966 and 19801. Burns, the Contagion screenwriter, claims in a remarkable interview that he took his inspiration from a TED talk by Larry Brilliant (probably this one), a WHO-affiliated epidemiologist who spent the 1970s trying to rid the Indian subcontinent of Variola:
I went and met with Dr. Brilliant and he put me in touch with a brilliant virologist named Dr. Ian Lipkin, and Dr. Lipkin works at Columbia and I went up and visited him at his lab, and he told me about how at his lab, they discover almost a new virus every week now.
W. Ian Lipkin is the notorious “master virus hunter,” who has abundant ties to the CDC, the WHO and mainland China; who played starring roles in MERS and SARS; who spent years endorsing gain-of-function research; and who, despite all of this experience, was confident already in March 2020 that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Here is Lipkin in 2014, weighing whether researchers should be allowed to create laboratory-enhanced Ebola viruses:
“There clearly are going to be instances where gain-of-function research is necessary and appropriate, and there are others where the opposite applies,” says Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City. The need to understand the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa and control its spread, for instance, emphasizes the importance of infectious-disease research — as well as the regulation of such work, Lipkin says. Although public worry about Ebola being transferred through the air is unfounded, researchers could make a case for the need to determine how the virus could evolve in nature by engineering a more dangerous version in the lab. “I think we should have some sort of guidelines in place before such experiments are even proposed,” says Lipkin.
Burns says he started his research for Contagion “about six months before H1N1 happened.” This helped him enormously, because he “got so see how all of society’s apparatus were dealing with pandemics.” In consequence, H1N1 is a subtle, recurring theme in Contagion. Epidemiologists trying to ring the alarm about the new, deadly virus at the centre of this fictional pandemic are confronted by ignorant local officials sceptical of their second attempt to cry wolf, after the Swine Flu failed to live up to their warnings. The film has multiple purposes, but one of its foremost aims is to re-establish public anxiety about pandemic respiratory viruses after the debacle of 2009.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial