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“Contagion” in the Classroom

Nothing Spreads Like Fear Contagion Banner

“Nothing spreads like fear.” At least, so claimed the promotional poster for “Contagion,” a film released in theaters last September. Local biotech networking group BioBuzz hosted a movie night for the biotech community at Kentlands, and apparently the movie had a big impact on some BioBuzz members, including Dr. Kristina Obom, Program Director for the Master of Science in Bioinformatics and for the Master of Science in Biotechnology programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for Biotechnology Education.

Obom has incorporated the movie into the curriculum of her emerging infectious diseases course. She said the class evaluates three different elements of the movie: the science, the public health communication, and the human response. For each element, students discuss whether the portrayal is real or not.

And for the most part, the movie does a solid job, according to Obom.

“When we look at ‘Contagion’ from a science perspective, it really does show the science in a fairly realistic way,” she said, citing the portrayal of how a BSL-4 (Biosafety Level 4) lab works as one example.

She added that she and her students agree that the human response – and the panic that you see in the movie – could, unfortunately, be real.

However, one element of the movie that her students often say they feel is lacking is the public health communications piece.

“My students feel that the communications aren’t handled in the way they should be,” Obom said. “They always say they hope that communications would be better in the event that an outbreak such as this occurred in real life.”

But as much as Obom said she feels that the movie does a good job at portraying the world of biotechnology, she also pointed out that it’s not 100%.

“It’s a movie,” she said,” and a movie requires drama and a certain pace of action.”

One of the biggest flaws she cited was how quickly the scientists created and produced a vaccine.

“It’s a little bit sci-fi,” she admitted. “Everybody would love for vaccine development and production to happen quicker, but it takes six months just to produce a flu vaccine.

“We all know the vaccine development and approval process needs to be faster, especially in a case like the disease in the movie, which is so lethal,” she added.

She also said her students laugh because the movie shows little – or perhaps even no – FDA approval process for the vaccine. “It’s a goal within the biotech industry to decrease the vaccine creation process,” Obom said. “And the time can and will be shortened with better technology, with NextGen sequencing, and with the development of better diagnostic tests. The movie was ahead of the curve in terms of where science is today, but was pretty spot-on in terms of where the field is headed.

She said that the movie executives’ decision to hire a well-known virologist from Columbia University as a science advisor is one reason the movie does such a good job at portraying a relatively realistic scenario. She said it was clear that the movie’s executives referenced epidemics such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the more recent SARS epidemic in creating its chain of events.

“‘Contagion’ does a good job of providing information for the public about what the biotechnology industry does and what some of the technology is in our field,” Obom said. “It’s an insider’s view in a fictitious, but case-based, way.

“This movie sends a very strong message that science can help in these epidemics, but that science and research can only move so fast,” she added. “It also did a great job of showing that solutions occur only when the public and private sectors work together. And that’s really one of the most important messages.”  

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