Video by Matt Haugen, WSU News.
PULLMAN, Wash. – In the box-office thriller, “Contagion,” an all-star cast confronts the global spread of a new, lethal virus. Audiences gasp at what it does to Gwyneth Paltrow. And they grimace at how it moves like wildfire and leaves a sky-high body count in its wake.
Since the film’s release, Fox News, CBS, the Washington Post, Public Radio International and the Guardian all want to know: Is this incredible movie credible?
As epidemiologists and infectious disease experts – even the assistant surgeon general – weigh in with media interviews, there’s one expert missing from the dialogue. He’s a scientist at Washington State University.
And he just might know a thing or two that the other experts don’t.
That man is Hector Aguilar-Carreno, virus researcher and assistant professor at WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. When he purchased a ticket on a recent Monday night to see “Contagion” at a local movie theater, he knew it was about a pandemic – but not the cause. Then, as the story unfolded on the screen, his pulse quickened as he started spotting clues:
- At first, Paltrow’s character suffers flu-like symptoms after returning to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong. But after she collapses on the family’s kitchen floor, convulsing and frothing at the mouth, “I knew it wasn’t influenza,” Aguilar-Carreno said.
- Scientists identify the deadly microbe as a paramyxovirus, which, as he knows, is a family of viruses that can cause severe human and animal diseases.
Finally, a quarter of the way through the film, exhausted scientists display two pictures of the magnified virus, which Aguilar-Carreno recognized.
It’s the little-known virus he has been researching for eight years.
“’That’s my virus!’ I thought, and I could have jumped out of my chair,” said Aguilar-Carreno in his fourth-floor WSU office, located across the hall from the laboratory where he probes cells to reveal their secrets. “Most people have never even heard of Nipah, and suddenly there it is on the screen with all these movie stars. I could hardly believe it.”
“Contagion” is modeled after the Nipah virus, an agent so deadly that Aguilar-Carreno’s collaborators, working with live-cell samples at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, wear biohazard space suits inside a quarantined lab. The virus jumps from beast to man, infecting swiftly and with agonizing symptoms, according to medical literature. Besides flu-like symptoms, it can also cause the brain to swell, resulting in delirium, convulsions, coma and death.
W. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, served as the “Contagion” consultant. “We used as our inspiration the Nipah virus, which in the late 1990s jumped from bats to pigs to humans,” he wrote in a recent op-ed column of the New York Times.
The dry-erase board spanning Aguilar-Carreno’s office wall is cluttered with black, red and green etchings of the Nipah virus and accompanying equations that show how it latches on to a single animal or human cell and then enters like a viral shark.
“It may only take a single Nipah virus to infect one cell in the body. Then it multiplies by the thousands and the disease process begins,” he said.
Nipah is named after the village in Malaysia where it was first identified in 1999 when it killed 40 percent of the 257 persons sickened by it, he explained. Derived from the tropical fruit bat, the virus spread to a pig and then made the leap to humans (the same scenario as in “Contagion”).
Thirteen outbreaks have occurred since then, all in South Asia. Perhaps most alarming was the 2001 epidemic in India where the virus appeared to jump easily from person to person, killing three-fourths of the 66 people infected, according to the World Health Organization, which tracks the disease.
“A big difference between those outbreaks and what happens in the movie is that, in real life, public health workers have been able to contain the virus before it spreads greater distances and kills more people,” said Aguilar-Carreno. “As far away as southern Asia may seem, it’s crucial to understand that, with air travel, it’s possible for Nipah to spread from one continent to another before the first infected person’s symptoms appear.”
Since 2003, disabling Nipah has been the focus of Aguilar-Carreno’s research. While he was doing his post-doctoral work in virology at UCLA-Los Angeles, his supervisor approached him one day about working on the Nipah virus.
“’What’s that?’” he recalled responding. “I had never heard of it before.”
Big scares, hard science
The challenge: Undertake research on a lethal and little-known virus that has no vaccine or cure. Aguilar-Carreno accepted.
Early on, he learned that fruit bats are the natural host for the virus but they don’t get sick.
Six foot wing span: As deforestation reduces fruit
bats’ habitats, they fly closer to civilization where
the virus is spread.
Deforestation is reducing their habitats, so these bats – with wing spans up to six feet – are flying to nearby farms where their urine, saliva or droppings get in animal feed, thereby infecting pigs and making them sick. Humans in close contact with the pigs get sick, spreading it to other humans and so on.
Aguilar-Carreno also learned that, not only does Nipah jump multiple species, it is one of the few viruses that strikes the respiratory system and the brain.
“Even though the outbreaks had occurred pretty much unnoticed by the world, I saw that it had the capacity to develop into an infectious disease that impacts much of the world,” he said.
And so he went to work. In 2005, his research led him to co-discover the protein receptor on healthy cells that allows the Nipah virus inside to do its damage. The findings were published in the science journal Nature.
“At that point, we knew the where but not the how,” he said.
Just this summer, he moved to WSU to oversee research of the how at the Allen School for Global Animal Health. Working with “pseudo viruses” – incomplete Nipah microbes unable to replicate and cause infection – Aguilar-Carreno and his staff are zeroing in on how the virus fuses its membrane with the healthy cell membrane in order to invade with its RNA.
“Once we know that, it may be possible to block Nipah’s entrance with a vaccine or designer drug,” he said.
Nipah’s trail of medical science leads to Atlanta’s CDC division of viral diseases. There, virologist Paul Rota applies Aguilar-Carreno’s findings to his own research. Because of Nipah’s ability to jump from animal to animal, animal to human and then human to human, Rota and fellow scientists at the CDC take Nipah very seriously, he said in a phone interview.
“In 1999, it was a virus we had never seen before,” he said. “First we had to identify it. Then we had to figure out how it spreads. Nipah is different than most viruses, applying its own set of rules. Hector has figured out what some of those rules are.”
No zombies or vampires lurk in “Contagion.” Then again, the reality of an invisible villain covering the globe in a matter of weeks is scary enough. Global travel, population growth and ecological destruction all contribute to the likelihood of a “Contagion”-like scenario occurring, said Aguilar-Carreno.
“In terms of the film’s accuracy, I’m surprised by how scientifically accurate the virology part was,” he said. “They took a complex biological concept and made it understandable and credible to the public.”
One inaccuracy was the speed at which it went from being an out-of-control virus to a controlled one.
“In the movie, all the answers and an effective vaccine came quickly, Aguilar-Carreno said. “Real research progress is much slower.”
The emergence of a deadly species-jumping virus carried by a six-foot-wing-spanned bat known to cover a hundred miles a day searching for food and unencroached habitat – it sounds like a horror flick that blends “Dracula” and “28 Days Later.”
“I know, I know. I’ve heard it all before from people who never heard of Nipah until I told them,” said Aguilar-Carreno. “But this is not fiction. It’s cold, hard fact.”
Hector Aguilar-Carreno, WSU Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, 509-335-4410, firstname.lastname@example.org