It is only a matter of time

On September 12th of 2011, the New York Times published an article by Dr. Abigail Zuger in which she criticised certain supposedly unrealistic aspects of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s recently released and widely lauded thriller in which a deadly pandemic sweeps the globe. In response, a week later the following letter reached the newspaper, penned by the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, and undersigned by the various specialists with whom he consulted for the project.

Nine years later, on March 25th, 2020, one of those specialists, Dr. Ian Lipkinrevealed that he had contracted COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. Another of the undersigned, noted epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, lambasted US President Donald Trump’s reaction to that same health crisis, calling some of his comments, “the most irresponsible act of an elected official that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.”

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The Letter

Sept. 19, 2011

To the Editor:

Re “The Cough That Launched a Hit Movie” (On View, Sept. 13): In writing the movie “Contagion,” we took great care to make sure that our fictional story was based on real science. The world has seen more than three dozen new pandemic-ready viruses in the last three decades. The scientists who consulted on the film, along with most of their colleagues in epidemiology and virology, believe it is only a matter of time — coupled with a lack of preparation — before the world faces a real-life pandemic like the make-believe one in the film.

Dr. Abigail Zuger’s point that the “Contagion virus,” or MEV-1, does not precisely replicate Nipah encephalitis, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic or H.I.V./AIDS is correct. She is also right about the truncated speed of a pandemic, as we have collapsed months of social catastrophe into about an hour and half of a movie. The truth is we do not know where the next real virus may appear or how it might progress.

But a highly transmissible and novel respiratory virus in humans like MEV-1 could plausibly occur. Our objective in making this film was to entertain, educate and initiate a discussion among the stakeholders in public health on the importance of global biosurveillance and pandemic preparedness.

Dr. Zuger’s article — and her perspective of a clinician — has highlighted the importance of this work, and we welcome her into what we hope will be a national and global discussion of how to prepare for, prevent and, when necessary, respond to the next pandemic.

Scott Z. Burns

Larry Brilliant, M.D.
Laurie Garrett
W. Ian Lipkin, M.D.
Mark Smolinski, M.D.