Threading the NEIDL – the trailer

Ray Ortega of the American Society for Microbiology has created a beautiful one-minute trailer for our documentary visit to a BSL-4 facility, ‘Threading the NEIDL‘.

TWiV 167: It starts with a cough

Lipkin in ContagionHosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dickson DespommierRich Condit, and Alan Dove

The complete TWiVome deconstructs the movie Contagion.

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Contagion: First review

contagionDennis Lim at the New York Times has a review of the upcoming virus thriller ‘Contagion’. According to script consultant (and my CU colleague) Ian Lipkin, he went through great efforts to make the movie realistic:

There isn’t anything in the laboratory part of the film that hasn’t either been done with a bona fide surrogate or assembled from something that was real.

I hope Ian is right. In science fiction movies liberties are always taken to make the story more compelling and scary. For me this is problematic because non-scientists often think what they see in such stories is real.

I’m sure we’ll have a rousing discussion here about the movie once it is released in September.

Contagion: The trailer

contagionContagion is the name of a new action-thriller movie about a global outbreak of a deadly viral disease. The trailer is now available. From the website:


“Contagion” follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.

I hope they get the science right. We’ll see when it opens on 9 September 2011.

Contagion, the movie

Contagion (2001)Contagion is the name of a new action-thriller movie about a global outbreak of a deadly viral disease. Slated to be released in 2011, it is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lawrence Fishburne. That’s certainly an outstanding crew, but will they get the science right?

According to Beyond Hollywood, “the film will have most of the big names playing doctors who are called to duty by the Centers for Disease Control when a major viral outbreak starts killing people around the world. The cast will then be split up and jet off to different continents.” Dread Central calls it ‘the deadly viral outbreak film of the decade’. Apparently Jude Law will play “a kind of unbridled blogger who’s a sort of scaremonger. Basically, it’s about a deadly virus unleashed and you see it from many different points of view, whether it be the public, medical care, politicians.”

The particular virus involved in Contagion has not been identified, but I have a good source which tells me that it’s a paramyxovirus. That’s not too hard to believe since the lethal Hendra and Nipah viruses are both members of the same family.

We’ll have to wait for more information to determine if the science in the film is credible. I do know that a prominent virologist, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has been hired as a script consultant. Whether or not the director and writer actually listen to that virologist is another question.

Moviegoers may know about the eponymous 2001 sci-fi movie (pictured) in which a group of terrorists concocted a seemingly unstoppable strain of Ebola. The first target is the President of the United States. Scientific reality just isn’t exciting enough for the movies.

Critique of influenza virus animation

influenza-animationRecently I asked readers to identify errors in an animation of influenza virus replication. I am impressed with the number of good responses posted in the comments section. Here is a synopsis of the errors (there is more than one).

1. Influenza virus is released from cells by budding, not when the cells burst, as is shown in the animation.

2. Influenza virus is not the only virus capable of antigenic shift.

3. There isn’t any mucus on the epithelium. It should be there.

4. One problem is that the animation describes the production of a mutant virus, but it shows reassortment. The two are not the same. More importantly, the animation illustrates co-infection of cells with a human strain and a swine/avian strain. The implication is that this gave rise to ‘mutated’ viruses which then infected people.

We don’t know how the new virus emerged yet, but here is one scenario. Over ten years ago, pigs that were infected with swine influenza were then infected with avian, and then human influenza viruses. A variety of recombinants emerged which propagated globally in pigs and occasionally infected humans. More recently, swine influenza virus genes from Eurasian and North American pigs mixed. Finally, a human was infected with this pig virus and one virus emerged which was able to transmit. Presumably this virus differs from what was in the pig by a number of base changes which enables the virus to spread among humans.

5. The epithelium is probably incorrect, as pointed out by several readers. It certainly doesn’t look like any respiratory epithelium I’ve seen under a microscope. Some readers had questions about this, but since I’m not an expert on the respiratory epithelium, I’ll refrain from specific criticism.

6. “The current flu in circulation is an entirely new, mutated pathogen…” The virus is not entirely new – it is very similar to what has been circulating in pigs for many years. What is new is the combination of influenza RNA sequences from Eurasian and North American pigs.

The rest of the statement – “formed from elements from human, pig, and avian virus strains” – implies that this combination occurred recently, as does the animation (#4). But this combination occurred over 10 years ago and since then the virus has been circulating in pigs.

7. The last sentence – “Overflowing with mutated viruses, the pig’s respiratory epithelial host cells eventually burst open and circulate the new flu virus into the susceptible human population”. The implication is that reassortment has lead to the production of many ‘mutated’ viruses. Incorrect, as discussed in #4. But it’s true that virus replication always leads to the production of a collection of mutant viruses – or more accurately, viral variants. A human was infected with such a collection of influenza virus mutants; one mutant replicated and transmitted and this is the virus we are seeing today. If this doesn’t make much sense, be patient until we discuss the quasispecies concept.

Perhaps one reader best summarized this animation:

“Nothing useful there….More mis-information…Was there anything remotely accurate?”

If you are wondering why I even bothered to direct you to this video, the answer is that understanding errors is always a learning experience. In my virology class we often discuss ‘flawed’ research papers for this reason.

Movie-makers often get their science wrong, especially when dealing with viruses. The movie Resident Evil and its sequels is an example. But animations produced for educational purposes should be much better than this. Here is a good animation of dengue virus entry into cells:

Animation of influenza virus replication

I found the following animation on YouTube depicting replication of an H1N1 influenza virus. It’s entitled “Antigenic shift – the spread of a new, mutated virus”. It is visually appealing but contains at least one error. If you think you know what it is, post it in the comments below.