Mailman School Virus Hunter Ian Lipkin Puts Science on Screen in "Contagion"

Special from The Record

Aug. 29, 2011Bookmark and Share

When the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decided to collaborate on a movie about a deadly virus that ignites a global pandemic, they were determined that the film be firmly grounded in scientific fact, not science fiction. So Burns, the writer behind The Bourne Ultimatum, began consulting scientists for guidance. “When I asked who was the best virologist … who could help me create a believable virus and help spin out the ramifications," Burns remembers being told one name "without hesitation": Dr. Ian Lipkin.

Ian Lipkin talks about his role as technical adviser on the film Contagion. (4:22)

The John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and a professor of neurology and pathology, W. Ian Lipkin heads the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and is a widely consulted expert on newly emerging infectious diseases. Other filmmakers had sought his advice before without success, but what particularly drew his attention to this project was a pledge from producer Michael Shamberg: “It is our intention that the scientific community feel that we have gotten the facts right in our film.”

Lipkin signed on as technical adviser in 2009, beginning a collaboration that culminates on Sept. 9 with the release of the film Contagion, featuring a star-studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Elliott Gould, who plays a virologist named Ian, based on Lipkin himself.

Lipkin has identified more than 400 new viruses over the past decade and developed a number of high-tech molecular tools for doing so. He was the first to determine that West Nile virus was the cause of an encephalitis epidemic that struck New York City in 1999. In 2003, he assisted the World Health Organization and Chinese Ministry of Health in managing the SARS outbreak—at some personal peril; he became ill and was quarantined upon returning to the United States.

As an experimental pathologist, Lipkin explores the roots of disease. “My focus is primarily on infectious diseases,” he says. “I try to understand how microbes cause disease and how microbes contribute to health.” For Contagion, his expertise was used to help develop the story line and design the fictional virus and the 3-D model of it shown in the film. He also coached the actors, offering everything from correct pronunciations of scientific terms to telling Paltrow what a seizure should feel like. He advised the actors playing scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on professional aspects of their characters, even telling Winslet she should look a bit frumpy in her role. He spent 21 days on the set to ensure accuracy.

“He was an incredible resource for grounding me in the science and how the spread of the virus could lead to some dramatic events, as well as giving the actors a solid foundation from which to work,” says Burns. “When you look at the performances from people like Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet, you can see they really understand. It shows.”

For his part, Lipkin hopes the film will entertain audiences while also awakening them to the genuine risks the public faces from microbes and the need to raise our level of preparedness. And if it inspires some young people to seek their future in hunting viruses, then all the better.

Q. What is a virus hunter?

Actually, the better term is microbe hunter, and it’s someone who looks for causes of infectious diseases, not only in jungles and exotic places but also in the everyday world. As a kid I read a book by Paul de Kruif called Microbe Hunters, and in medical school I was interested in microbiology, which of course is the science of infectious diseases. But what really piqued my interest in microbe hunting was when HIV emerged. It took years to figure out the cause of this disorder. So I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to trying to find ways to expedite the process of identifying infectious agents.

Q. What were your first steps as a technical adviser?

I was involved early on with putting together a plot. There were many technical advisers, but just three senior technical advisers: [author] Laurie Garrett, [renowned epidemiologist] Larry Brilliant and me. We came up with a number of suggestions. One of them took root: that the virus should be zoonotic—meaning that it comes from another species. The movie plot was that the virus came from a bat. I was inspired by recent work with Nipah virus, which has the capacity to spread to people from bats. There was a 1999 Malayasian outbreak in Chinese men who worked with pigs. The pigs had been infected by bats, and men were exposed to pigs. They got a respiratory illness and died. In another outbreak that occurred in Bangladesh, the virus went directly from bat to man. Bats that were infected with Nipah contaminated the sap of palm trees, which was used to make palm wine. We have a large Nipah surveillance program here at the center. To me, it was an obvious choice for the film.

Q. What was the process for working with screenwriter Scott Burns?

As the script was being developed, Scott would tap me every few days and ask all sorts of questions. How do you contain outbreaks—everything from diagnostics to vaccines to drugs. What are the implications for society and the economy? He wanted to know what you would do to identify an infectious agent in the lab. Would you have DNA sequencers? Tissue culture? What would the nutrient plates look like? What would the virus look like? He asked about the organizational structure of an outbreak team: Who’s important at home, and who’s in the field? What kinds of things might they say to one another? Who would the CDC send out to investigate? How old would they be? What questions would they ask in the field? What notebooks would they use? How would they trace infection across a population? It was extremely detailed, and the questions were quite informed.

Q. Explain your role in devising the actual structure of the virus used in the film.

We created a virus, a kind of paramyxovirus—a family of RNA viruses that includes Nipah virus. Typically, these are respiratory viruses; some go to the brain and cause encephalitis and seizures. It’s a made-up virus but it could happen. I worked with Craig Street, a bioinformatician here at the Center for Infection and Immunity. We collected genetic sequences of various paramyxoviruses. And we reassembled them, splicing together bat and pig viruses to create the virus of this movie. This virus attacks cells in the respiratory track and brain. We also created models used in the film. As the virus spreads around the world in the film, I reviewed the maps and approved the distribution pattern. The way in which infectious agents spread is a function of transportation corridors. You have to ask: Where are the air routes?

Q. Were you surprised there was a character based on you?

Very early on it became clear that Scott wanted to incorporate me into the script. I was honored by that, very much so. I met Elliott Gould on the set in Chicago. He walked up to me, thrust his hand out and said, “Elliot Goldstein (his real name), P.S. 247.” He is a very nice man. I taught him how to remove samples from liquid nitrogen wearing gloves and how to look through a microscope and lean back and think about what it was he had seen. He was such a natural. I told him that what’s important is to be able to relate to the material and relate to the people and communicate the results of what you find. Because as I get more senior, that’s what I primarily do. I don’t spend time at the bench anymore. What I do is I look at data. I translate it, I accumulate it, I analyze it, and I transmit it, trying to communicate and simplify it so that it’s something that you can use to make meaningful decisions.

Q. What kinds of things did you suggest to ensure accuracy?

The filmmakers wanted authentic sounds of centrifuges whirring and freezers opening and the sound of liquid nitrogen hissing, so all of that was recorded here at Columbia. And in one scene when an actor was dying on screen, I noticed that the heart monitor had all the readings of a healthy person. In a case like that the person would be hyperventilating, with blood pressure dropping and body temperature going up, then down, as the person fades away. So the monitor had to be adjusted to reflect that. We also had two actors—Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle—spend some time at my lab. They were playing officers at the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, so we showed them how to use some of the lab equipment and we gave them little diplomas at the end of their tour of duty with us.

Q. Is there a part of the film that you find particularly evocative?

The most moving portions of the film were those where I saw people who were very similar to people whom I’ve known, people who didn’t have well-known names, who died in the service of science and public health. The film is in some ways a living memorial to them. This movie takes the stance that the real heroes here are the scientists and the public health people who put themselves on the line trying to solve real problems and reduce mortality.

Q. What do you hope that audiences will take away from Contagion?

We want audiences to understand that science is critical to address these kinds of challenges and respond in real time. We need to be prepared. Outbreaks and pandemics will occur. We need better biosurveillance with better detection, better ability to develop vaccines. We’ve been through this with SARS. We will be through it again. We also hope it will convince people in college or even before to start thinking about careers in science and engineering and mathematics, which is what this country needs. This is like a Sputnik moment. Let’s see if we can try to engage people and move them in the right direction.

—by Claudia Wallis

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Columbia University mourns the death of Robert Belknap, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages, who died March 17. An expert in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, he also taught Literature Humanities in the Core Curriculum for 50 years and influenced generations of Columbia students. For more information, please visit this page.

Mary Bassett, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, was named New York City’s commissioner of health.

University Professor Ronald Breslow won the 2014 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the AIC’s highest award.

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