Archives for : Microbiology

Contagion Review – An infectiously intelligent worst-case scenario

This is the second post in my September Series, where I am experimenting with different forms of journalism and writing. Last week, I wrote an article entitled Not Just An Idiot Box, which took a look at educational television, using examples from my own childhood to argue the point. This week, I decided to try a movie review. Beware of some spoilers and enjoy!

Is there anything scarier than an enemy you cannot see?

Horror movies have been taking advantage of this for decades, as it allows your mind to run wild with scary and horrifying possibilities. However, instead of some crazy murderer following you around your house or a spirit seeking vengeance upon you, something all together scarier and deadlier is all around you. All you have to do is pick up a microscope and look at the onslaught of bacteria and viruses that we are exposed to every day.

Sometimes, all it can take is one touch, one cough or one innocent gesture to expose someone to a potentially lethal virus. And that is what the Warner Brothers movie Contagion is all about, tracing the path of a virus from initial exposure and its eventual outbreak, all the way to pandemic and finally treatment.

Director Steven Soderbergh expertly decides to start the movie, not from day one like the 1995 thriller Outbreak, but from day two, the day after Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff is exposed to the virus. She returns home to her loving husband Mitch, played by Matt Damon, but quickly succumbs to the illness, followed quickly by their young son.

But, the bulk of the plot doesn’t follow the widowed Mitch being a hero of the story and saving the day. Instead, Soderbergh divides his story amongst many different characters, all affected by the virus somehow and doing their best to manage, fight back and most importantly, to survive.

“We don’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are already doing that” 

As the virus begins to infect an increasing number of people, either from direct contact or secondary contact (infected person touches rail followed by a healthy person, who then picks up the virus), the movie widens its scope and focuses on characters from all over the world, from Atlanta to Hong Kong.

The acting is stellar across the board, but the cast is far too large to name everyone. However, the standouts include: Laurence Fishburne as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) division chief who is portrayed with just the right amount of humanity, Jude Law as a blogger who is one of the first to report the illness but has ulterior motives, Kate Winslet plays CDC employee Dr. Mears who is literally scrambling to contain the outbreak, and Marion Cotillard plays an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization sent to China to track the origin of the epidemic.

Every storyline adds weight, and allows the viewer to experience another facet of the destruction and pain a viral outbreak can accomplish.

Matt Damon’s story is by far the most emotional of them all. His storyline showcases the human side of the disease, and what can happen when normal people become so scared for their own lives that they begin to do whatever they can to survive.

And that is where the film becomes elevated beyond a mere biological thriller, as it manages to resonate beyond the confines of one genre. The film is also an insight into our most basic human conditions, and what happens when even the simple act of touching something can be deadly.

As the tagline of the film rightly states, “nothing spreads like fear.”

A different view of a never-ending battle

Soderbergh spends a lot of time focusing the camera for just a fraction longer than usual on everyday objects, such as a glass, a doorknob or a handrail on a bus. It is like seeing a shadow moving across the screen in a horror movie, showcasing just how susceptible the people in the movie (as well as ourselves) really are. And that’s the take-home message.

Contagion is a movie with brains that keeps you thinking after you leave the theatre, which is the kind of movie I always enjoy. As well, it managed to highlight some pretty decent science that made me want to look through some of my old microbiology notes. I won’t say that the movie is a substitute for learning about viruses in an academic setting or using better hygiene, but its heart is in the right place and the intelligence and thought that was put into this movie really shows just how possible such an event is.

Now that’s the real scare.

For those of you looking for an in-depth look at the science behind the movie, I will not be going into it in this post, as movie reviews traditionally don’t utilize a lot of science. However, for those still interested, be sure to read this great article where noted journalist and author, Maryn McKenna, spoke to the science advisor of the film, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin (who has also written a piece on the real threat presented by viruses for the New York Times, which can be read here).

Not Your Average Microbe – A Review of SUPERBUG by Maryn McKenna

Based on my background, as well as my thesis, many people assume that I am an animal guy through and through. Granted, my thesis was on frog salinity tolerance, and I know quote a bit about a vast majority of animals – but that is not my only area of interest.

I took a microbiology course in 4th year, due in large part to my mother saying I would enjoy it and having a passive interest in how the so-called “lower organisms” worked.

Man, was I wrong.

I learned to love microbiology and learning about bacteria and viruses – how they work, how they kill, how they fight and how they die. It all interested me, and I soaked up all that information like a sponge.

If there would have been more microbiology courses at my university, I would have taken them and perhaps changed my thesis into something microbial. I still love learning about bacteria and viruses, and will take any opportunity to expand my existing knowledge base.

That is why I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of Maryn McKenna’s new book SUPERBUG, coming out on March 23, 2010, which deals with the development of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

MRSA is what is known as a superbug, it is multiple-drug resistant and impressively deadly. It takes massive amounts of drugs with often serious side-effects to even have a chance of beating it.

MRSA – Courtesy of

While it was historically known as a disease that only occurred in hospitals in people that were already suffering from a weakened immune system – that is no longer the case. A new completely different strain has come up that affects people who have not had any contact with hospitals. It is known as community-acquired MRSA, and is surprisingly lethal.

McKenna’s style is aptly suited to this type of book, as there is a lot of medical jargon that requires a deft hand to explain to people with little to no knowledge in that particular area. This is accomplished through what I can only describe as a massive amount of interviews and research with individuals who have been affected by MRSA.

This book raises a lot of issues regarding the sanitary procedures performed at hospitals, the over-prescription of antibiotics in both people and animals, and the sheer speed in which MRSA can adapt.

Reading this book may seem like some sort of scare tactic, and it is. But it is the sort of thing people NEED to hear.

And the best way to do this is to let the people whose lives have been affected speak for themselves, and McKenna realized this and only breaks away from a narrative for context. Simply put, it is a superbly written science book that reads like a novel.

I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises lurking within the book, and there are many regarding the health care industry, misplaced government spending and agricultural practices that would shock you.

There are also parts of this book which may be difficult to read if you are squeamish, specifically where she describes the various symptoms that people infected with MRSA had to deal with. And, not all the people you meet throughout the book survive, as MRSA is an indiscriminate killer.

SUPERBUG is a very impressive book that has some very important lessons to teach us about microbial evolution, and the huge effect it can have on the human population.