The things my movie Contagion got wrong: The slow vaccine, the damaging president
Film-maker Scott Z Burns looks back on his meticulously researched pandemic film
Contagion featured many of the pandemic phenomena that have become too familiar to us now.
Nearly a decade ago Scott Z Burns wrote the Steven Soderbergh-directed movie Contagion, a star-filled film about a worldwide pandemic. It was meticulously researched and featured many of the pandemic phenomena that have become too familiar to us now: self-isolation, the “R” number, fomites, face masks, bat DNA, even Matt Damon.
Consequently, it has become a streaming hit again (it’s on Netflix). Recently I spoke to Burns and one of his advisers on Contagion, Dr Ian Lipkin, head of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. (Listen to me speaking to Burns and Lipkin on the Confronting Coronavirus podcast)
The most important question, of course, is how did he know Matt Damon would be a feature of the pandemic? “I’ve had the good fortune of working with Matt on four films, I think . . . Every time we sort of have this conversation about whether or not I should kill him. And I didn’t kill him in Bourne, I didn’t kill him in The Informant. And we killed a lot of other famous people in Contagion but I purposefully left Matt alive, knowing, even then, that he would be able to find his way to Ireland and keep you all company. I think, as a loyal citizen of Boston, there’s no better place for him to have been.”
Burns has been talking to Damon about his time in Ireland. “He really loved it there. I was like, ‘I want to quarantine in Ireland.’”
Did Burns expect to be discussing a real pandemic years after creating a fictional one? He didn’t, but “every scientist who I spoke to when we were doing research on the film [said]] it wasn’t a matter of if this was going to happen, it was a matter of when”.
What was the origin of Contagion? “In the early aughts, my father and I would talk about the likelihood or the inevitability of a virus . . . I think the scary thing that we would most frequently talk about was avian flu and [how] at some point, it would jump into the human species. . . Steven Soderbergh and I were finishing the movie The Informant with Matt Damon; [Soderbergh] said, ‘What you want to do next?’ And I said: ‘I’m fascinated with what an outbreak or a global pandemic would look like now.’”
Before long he was in Lipkin’s office, he says, promising not to make “the Hollywood version of a pandemic”. Lipkin recalls their first meeting differently. He says it was on the top floor of a New York hotel, where Burns introduced him to a drink called a Moscow Mule. This is relevant, he says, because the next night he met someone representing a more “flamboyant” director with more fantastical visions. “He had a dry martini.”
Lipkin is happy he chose Contagion. “In retrospect, there are only two things that that were considered inaccurate when it first came out . . . One of them was the number of times that you touch your face.”
The second was pointed out to him by Anthony Fauci, who said: “‘It’s really very good, [but] the time to the vaccine, it’s never going be that short.’ And I said to him: ‘It has to become that short.”
Now, it looks like they might have a vaccine in eight months to a year. “So, if you ever see Tony Fauci again, Scott, remind him that you deserve credit for expediting the delivery of the vaccine.”
“If I had that much power, I would lose the movie entirely and go on directly to the vaccine,” says Burns.
Lipkin, who was in China for Sars and Saudi Arabia for Mers, first heard of this latest disease on December 15th, 2019. On New Year’s Eve he was out listening to a band when he got a call from the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said: ‘We’ve discovered that this pneumonia is due to a new type of coronavirus but don’t worry about it, it’s really not very transmissible.’ That didn’t make a lot of sense given the amount of morbidity and mortality that I was hearing about.”
In January, Lipkin flew to China, where he found Wuhan locked down. “The various source of isolation techniques that we are now using here were already implemented, except that they did better because within a family if somebody was infected, the other people were separated from that individual . . . and their testing was ramped up much more rapidly than ours was.”
The American response, he says, was not good. “The only flights that were being suspended into the US [early on] were from China. Nobody was paying any attention to Europe whatsoever, despite the fact that there was a large outbreak in Italy at that time . . . In the two weeks, as I was travelling around New York City trying to get this message across at various television stations and cable outlets, I became sick with a European variant.”
Was Burns surprised by how ineffective the real US response to the virus was compared with that in Contagion? He was naive, he says, because of how impressed he was by the scientists at the CDC. “I could never in a million years have thought, regardless again of politics, that the leadership of the United States would move against the World Health Organisation . . . would turn a blind eye, would push fake cures, would suppress information, would fail to take a leadership position that did the things that needed to be done in a timely fashion to save a lot of lives.”
Why did it happen like that? Lipkin explains. “In the years that followed Sars, I and others went there and we built the infrastructure up in China to the point where people focus on facts, they had enough money to do whatever they needed to do, they built surveillance.
“At the same time, in the United States there were two surveillance committees that were established . . . There wasn’t any build-up of these resources under Obama, frankly. And they were further dismantled under Trump.
“The CDC was once a premier organisation. It is not a premier organisation any more. They don’t have personnel. They’ve got beautiful buildings, but they are not state of the art. If you look at who actually ran some of these recent outbreak investigations . . . American presence [has] been modest. The Chinese have been there. The Europeans have been there. You probably know that an Irishman is the one who actually runs the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. That’s [Sligo native] Mike Ryan. So [America has] really been sidelined in many ways.”
He’s pessimistic for science in America, he says. “The thing that I’m most focused on right now is trying to do whatever I can to ensure that we have a change of administration. That occupies more of my time, frankly, than thinking about Covid. Because of the economic, cultural, medical . . . intellectual devastation associated with the presidency. There’s no way I could possibly overstate the damage that’s occurred.”
“It’s heart-breaking to me,” Burns says later, “that we have a scientist that’s as good as Ian, and it’s so hard for him to do science in this country that he has to turn his attention to politics.”
Burns sees the mismanagement of Covid-19 as being directly related to systemic discrimination and the protests against racism. “It’s part of the same really disgusting system that we’re seeing in this country . . . People who are delivering packages, restocking shelves [are] frequently from communities that are being devastated by this illness. And so you can’t disentangle the two.”
Lipkin is still optimistic about tackling the virus. “There are at least 100 vaccines that are being made now worldwide. There are five that have been selected as the most likely to go forward in the United States. I have confidence in at least three of them based on data that I’ve seen . . . I think that we will have at least one, maybe more, before the end of the year, and we will start doing vaccinations in large scale sometime after the beginning of the year, if not before.”
But he worries about how to get those vaccines to nearly eight billion people. “Until such time as everyone is vaccinated, everyone is vulnerable.”
If Burns were rewriting Contagion what would he change? “I expected a compassionate, rapid, science-based, apolitical response from everybody in this country . . . There was nothing in my research that suggested a response as inadequate as the one that we’ve seen . . . I do think I would lean more heavily into the responsibility we have to each other, in this moment.
“It’s interesting that people feel so helpless without knowledge and without information. And yet, you really can keep yourself safe right now [by] wearing a facial covering so you don’t get droplets on other people, by staying home, by not doing some weird macho bullshit like you saw in the States a couple of weekends ago where people decide they were going to go party . . . I think I would probably have scenes that show our responsibility to each other.”