The new film “Contagion” tells the story of a deadly virus that sweeps around the globe, killing millions. The movie is fiction, but Oklahoma scientists who study contagious diseases say that its premise is not far-fetched.
“The threat of a pandemic is real,” said Linda Thompson, Ph.D., an immunologist at OMRF who researches influenza. “Outbreaks of SARS and swine flu pushed us toward building infrastructure for international cooperation, so we can have a truly coordinated response when the next new infectious agent appears.”
While most movies tend to exaggerate, “Contagion” director Stephen Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns spent significant time with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control to get the science right.
But one only needs look to history to see how devastating pandemics can be. In 1918 and 1919, a deadly strain of flu virus known as Spanish Influenza spread worldwide, claiming more than ten million lives. Although many of those lives would have been saved if anti-flu drugs, antibiotics and mechanical ventilators had existed, modern medical advances only go so far in protecting against a pathogen like influenza.
“What makes flu viruses so dangerous is that they mutate rapidly and spread easily,” said Thompson. “Even with proper medical treatment, a newly emergent strain could claim many, many victims.”
Thompson and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., led a group of OMRF scientists who worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control during the H1N1 influenza virus outbreak in 2009. When that new strain of flu emerged, the government collaborated with research centers around the country to try to develop diagnostic tools and possible therapies for the virus.
At OMRF, scientists had already produced 67 different antibodies to previous H1N1 viruses which the CDC wanted to test as potential treatments for the swine flu. Although that strain ultimately proved more difficult to transmit and less lethal than initially feared, it still killed an estimated 10,000 Americans.
With funding provided by the National Institutes of Health, Thompson and James are now studying why vaccines do not protect certain people from the flu. “This information could provide an important building block to producing more effective vaccines,” said Thompson. “And as new, more lethal strains of influenza continue to emerge, creating more effective vaccines will be key to saving lives.”
While scientists at OMRF and elsewhere will continue their quest for new methods to prevent and treat the flu, James said old-fashioned common sense and hygiene can play a major role in protecting you from flu and other viruses. “The most common method of transmission is airborne, so give yourself a little bit of space from other people, particular those who are sneezing or coughing,” she said.
It’s also possible to become infected by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching one’s mouth or nose. “So if you want to avoid infection, wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your face,” she said.
“I do really want to see ‘Contagion,’ but after I saw ‘Outbreak’ with my husband he swore we would never go to see a movie like this together again since I sat there and picked the movie apart, which drives him crazy,” James said. “It will probably be DVD or Netflix for me.”