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"Contagion" Is Part Reality, Part Fantasy, Totally Possible

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
September 13, 2011


Editor's note: Laurie Garrett was one of three scientific consultants on the Warner Bros. film "Contagion." She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations

Steven Soderbergh's movie "Contagion," which opened in theaters Friday, speaks to globalization in an era when risk is shared by the entire planet, but benefits remain prioritized to exclusive, usually wealthy populations.

This terrible global risk/benefit calculus means viruses may now swiftly enter every region of the world, but the protective gear, treatments and vaccines necessary to save lives remain primarily available to lucky residents of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and a handful of other countries. There is no governing structure for a pandemic, and little more than vague political pressure to ensure limited access to life-sparing tools and medicines for more than half the world population.

"Contagion" is an action-thriller about the outbreak of a deadly virus. The producers behind "Contagion" asked me to serve as a consultant because I wrote "The Coming Plague" in the 1990s and worked as a reporter in at least 20 epidemics, including those of HIV in the 1980s, Ebola and SARS.

From my very first meeting with "Contagion" director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, I stressed that the days when epidemics could be tackled locally had long passed. I argued that the movie had to demonstrate that disease threats in the 21st century are global threats, but the world lacks an appropriate system of governance and trade to permit a genuinely equitable response.

Without equity, pandemic battles will fail. Viruses will simply recirculate, and perhaps undergo mutations or changes that render vaccines useless, passing through the unprotected populations of the planet.

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