Tell us about the making of “Contagion.” What’s an example of how you improved its scientific accuracy?
W. Ian Lipkin: We designed a plausible virus and showed an accurate laboratory and public-heath response scenario. I coached the actors on how to demonstrate symptoms of disease. The habitat-destruction scene at the end of the film is a powerful reminder of the zoonotic [animal-to-human] origin of many emerging infectious diseases.
Laurie Garrett: I was involved at the script level, and there were 30 — yes, 30 — drafts. In countless ways, from brainstorming on plots all the way down to very specific ways a scientist might phrase a comment, I had input, and offered critique.
About the virus you helped “create” for the movie: How probable would it be that something like that could happen naturally in the world today?
Lipkin: The majority of emerging and re-emerging infectious-disease threats arise in nature; nonetheless, synthetic biology is becoming an increasingly important field to monitor as costs go down and tools become more accessible.
Did you face any resistance when you tried to include actual science in the plot?
Lipkin: The “Contagionists” were committed to getting it right. There were only a few instances where I might have made other choices — however, none of the choices were poor choices.
How did you guys end up consulting for the movie?
Lipkin: Because Laurie and I are both photogenic.
Are we safer today than we were 10 years ago?
Garrett: Yes and no. We are better prepared for bioterrorism, or terrorism generally, because we are less naive, as Americans, and more vigilant. But most of the billions of dollars’ worth of investments in preparedness have left us no closer to safety — mainly because [the World Health Organization] has a $1 billion deficit, CDC just lost $750 million in its budget in a single month, and local health departments are getting hacked right and left.
How great is the actual risk of a bioterrorist attack vs. something potentially more impactful over a large area, like a nuclear attack?
You ask about balancing and weighing risks — radiation, biologicals, chemical, suicide bombers. I don’t think it is actually possible to say which is more likely (or not likely), or which would be more devastating were it to occur. Risk assessment depends on intelligence, and all aspects of terrorism intel are still difficult to assess. In the end, I think “preparedness” is about infrastructure — what is in place, how well people are trained.