AAHL scientists working in the lab.

In Hollywood's 'Contagion', scientists wear bright orange protective laboratory suits similar to the ones worn by our scientists working at the highest level of biosafety – Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4).

Going viral: CSIRO vs Contagion

A reference to research undertaken by CSIRO's 'bat pack' team in Hollywood's latest disaster flick Contagion highlights the role CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) would play in a real-world version of the pandemic. (11:12)

  • 28 October 2011

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Glen Paul: G'day and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul. The Hollywood disaster movie Contagion paints a horrifying scenario of a deadly virus spreading around the globe in a matter of days. Unlike other films of the genre it bases itself on real science.

People don’t turn into zombies after they’re infected and it’s this depiction of what would really happen in the case of a severe pandemic that makes the film so scary. In the movie CSIRO’s Bat Pack team gets a nod for their work at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory which the movie’s fictitious virus based on the real Nepah virus which is a relative of Hendra virus.

Joining me on the line to sift through the science of the film, and being mindful of spoilers, is CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory Director, Professor Martyn Jeggo. Firstly, Martyn, congratulations to you and team for getting a mention in the film, it certainly shows your work is not going unnoticed. How realistic is the movie? Did they sacrifice much science in favour of drama?

Martyn Jeggo: First of all, yeah, we do appreciate getting a mention in a Hollywood blockbuster, we’re happy to take rewards anywhere we can get them and so that was good in the first place. The film is surprisingly accurate. They did seek some quite strong technical support in producing this film.

A colleague of ours who we work with quite closely here in the States, Dr Ian Lipkin, was the technical advisor to the movie and there was a small cameo of him actually in the movie. The science is good, it does make sense and it is surprisingly realistic. The actual virus that they talk about is not one that exists but we have a couple of viruses that behave similarly to it so, yes, it is a good representation of what could happen.

Glen Paul: OK. There was one aspect there that I hadn’t been aware of previously; they talk in the film about a basic reproduction number or RO, an equation where you get the rate of transmission. Kate Winslet’s character does a pretty good job of explaining it on a whiteboard. For those that haven’t seen the film then how does that equation work?

Martyn Jeggo: Essentially, that’s the rate at which a virus will spread through a population. The more infectious the virus, the more rapidly it will spread. That gets important in terms of the time it takes or the time we’ve got available to us to respond to a major outbreak of a new disease. If I can take an example of SARS, that had a very high rate and so we very quickly saw that virus spread from China into Hong Kong, around the world, over into Canada where it had a huge effect.

That’s a virus with a very high reproductive rate and clearly a high level of infectivity. The interesting thing is that the Hendra virus or the Nepah virus doesn’t have that characteristic, it doesn’t have that high infectivity rate and that’s where the movie, if you will, took a little bit of a scientific liberty.

It combined together the extreme seriousness of the Hendra and Nepah virus in terms of the pathology and the [indistinct 2.54] that it affects humans and combined that with the rate of spread with a virus like SARS or one we know more commonly, influenza. It combined the nastiness of the virus with the speed at which it can spread and that’s why that reproductive rate is very important in terms of the film itself.

Glen Paul: So with the disease depicted in the film they are using a little poetic licence, incorporating all those camera shots that focus on people touching doorknobs to infer transference of the disease?

Martyn Jeggo: Yes, but if you recall that two years ago globally we were really alarmed about the prospect of a major influenza pandemic. That was a very similar scenario to the one we saw in the movie.

That was where we had a normal influenza virus, we all know how rapidly the common cold spreads throughout people and what they did was said that if that virus with the very strong ability to spread with people was to re-assort with that virus we currently had in poultry that was killing thousands of poultry, it was very virulent for poultry, if that virus combined that virulence with the ability of the normal influenza virus to spread, if those two came together we could have a pandemic influenza situation similar to what we saw in 1920.

That was the pandemic that we were really worried about two years ago and that’s the scenario that is more or less depicted in this film. It is quite close; in fact it’s very close to what can happen.

Glen Paul: In the film Matt Damon’s character is exposed to the virus but then he doesn’t present any symptoms and is told he’s immune. Is that the case? Are some people less susceptible to a disease than others?

Martyn Jeggo: It depends on the virus and people’s susceptibility, of course, does vary. You know as well as I do that in a room where one person is sneezing then not everybody else in that room will get that infection, some people will be resistant to it and naturally resistant.

With any infections going round we have people varied in their ability to get it or not get it. In that case he did seem to be highly resistant and that’s probably a little bit unusual. The other thing that was depicted in the film which is important, and something we saw in SARS, is this concept of super-spreaders.

It does seem to be, in some populations, some hosts or members of that population are able to spread the virus much more rapidly than others. We actually don’t know too much about that but clearly in terms of controlling a major outbreak of disease the super-spreader concept becomes important.

Glen Paul: Obviously you’re a lot closer to this than most and you would have found the movie interesting on more levels than your average viewer, particularly as I know from a previous interview that you were involved in the eradication of the cattle disease Rinderpest and you described in that podcast seeing piles of dead, rotting cattle littering the landscape in parts of Africa. What runs through your mind as you watch a film that depicts a human pandemic?

Martyn Jeggo: How scary it was but how realistic it was. I’ve watched many of these types of movies around infectious agents and for the most part I find them pretty unrealistic. This wasn’t.

This is scary, it is not so far fetched, it is definitely possible and I would suggest that the risk is increasing as we move round the world more, we intensify where we live, we have large urban areas where spread is going to be much easier. As the world grows into this so I think the risk of these diseases does increase. It’s a realistic scenario and it’s one where I think the risk is actually increasing.

Glen Paul: How accurate is the U.S Government’s response in the movie to real life? Would it run along similar lines here in Australia?

Martyn Jeggo: Oh, gosh. That’s probably moving out of my area of expertise. We could all speculate on that. Certainly we’ve seen that both nationally and internationally we are beginning to put in place ways of dealing with these outbreaks. We actually dealt very well with the SARS outbreak.

We understood it fairly quickly and we put in place quite a number of measures that limited the spread. I think there would be a global response and a national response and I think it would be coordinated. Whether it would be exactly as was depicted in this movie is probably going a bit far for me to speculate on, but certainly we are aware of what’s now needed.

A lot of work was done to respond to the risk from an influenza pandemic and a lot of people started to get to grips with just how would you maintain an operating society - food on the shelves in shops, medical service, transport systems – in the face of a major pandemic.

Certainly there has been more work done on that in the last two or three years. Whether it would reach the proportions we’ve seen in the film, I’m not sure.

Glen Paul: Right. The film did touch there also on the internet and the muddying of waters by pseudo science. How can you combat bogus information in a situation such as depicted in the film?

Martyn Jeggo: I think that’s really tricky, I think that’s one of the interesting areas that the film went into; this whole concept of how social media now can spread messages, correctly or incorrectly, so rapidly and globally. I think it was realistically depicted there.

If we just cast our minds to the recent political turmoils we’ve seen in parts of the world, Tunisia has elections going on that were probably started through social media information being spread and we’ve seen it in Syria and other countries as well.

We’re certainly aware now of the very powerful role that social media can play. How it was played out in this film and how it might be played out in another pandemic, I’m not sure. One thing that is certain is you have to deal with fact as well as the fiction in this type of information dissemination.

Glen Paul: Why are we more at threat of a pandemic now more so than in the past?

Martyn Jeggo: A number of factors have come together. One is there are more of us on the planet, there are more people with closer contact and closer opportunity. Secondly, we move much more and it’s a global village, that’s the expression that’s used, and we get on planes and fly large distances in relatively short times which is encouraging the spread of these viruses.

Thirdly, often these viruses do emerge, as it did in this film, from an animal host and we have very intensive industries these days.

Thousands if not millions of animals are in a relatively small area and this gives an opportunity for viruses to adapt and change in an environment that encourages that to happen and for a more virulent virus to emerge. We have climate change and some of these viruses prefer the more wet conditions that we’re seeing now and we’ve seen more recently.

Some of these viruses – not the one in the film, but others – are transmitted by insects, we all know about malaria being transmitted by mosquitoes.

Clearly a wet environment, some of the climate changes we’ve seen, are encouraging these insects and the insect numbers to increase and that helps spread these viruses. Finally, perhaps in many ways most importantly, we’re beginning to get into areas of the globe we didn’t go into before. We’re beginning to upset the ecological environment in which many of these viruses exist quite happily with a host where there’s no trouble.

Perhaps that is what we’re seeing with some of these bat borne viruses, these bats have lived in colonies quite comfortably for many years but as we invade those colonies and move the bats on so the risk to man and to animal increases from viruses from bats.

I think that the biggest example of that would have to be HIV/AIDS which we know was circulating in the Congo in primates before it emerged into man. As we invaded those areas, so we became susceptible and we got infected with the virus HIV. There’s another example of us encroaching on environment where we haven’t been before.

Glen Paul: So, realistically, do you see something like this as a bigger threat to humanity in the long term than a wayward asteroid or a nuclear war?

Martyn Jeggo: It’s certainly in that area, it’s in that ballpark. You could argue which is the more likely but from my perspective that is not an unrealistic scenario that’s played out in the film.

Glen Paul: It certainly is frightening, and it had me reaching for the hand sanitizer. Thank you very much for discussing the science of the film with me today, Martyn, much appreciated.

Martyn Jeggo: My pleasure indeed.

Glen Paul: Professor Martyn Jeggo. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au, you can like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at csironews.