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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

Contagion: A Nice Nod to the Lab Community

Published September 14, 2011 1:58 PM by Glen McDaniel
I just saw the blockbuster movie Contagion and must say I was pretty impressed. When I watch a medical-themed movie, I always look at it with a critical eye. How factual is it? Is it authentic in terms of scenarios, equipment, procedures and vocabulary?

I look for how realistically roles are portrayed. For example I tend to roll my eyes and become more vocal than usual when instruments spit out data indicating everything except what one had for breakfast. Doctors do not routinely perform laboratory testing or calibrate instruments in any lab I know.

This movie, directed by Steven Sodenburgh, has a star-studded cast and a riveting, attention-keeping credible story line.Contagion movie I was happy to see Atlanta prominently featured: the CDC, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and CNN’s own Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a cameo appearance playing himself!

Without being a spoiler, I can disclose that the “culprit” is a virus that spurs an epidemic and rapidly balloons to a pandemic gripping civilians and healthcare professionals alike. The virus has an animal reservoir and is in fact modeled after the Nipah virus spread from animal to humans. CDC colleagues indicate (personal communication) that not only is this scenario realistic, it is just mere luck that such a pandemic has not yet occurred.

The biohazard room, research facilities, equipment and departments like Epidemic Intelligence Service are all authentic. The audience is educated with terms like fomite and R0 (R nought) without being entirely condescending.

Movies are usually sensationalized dramas with crises resolved in two hours or so. But real laboratory action is not always as dramatic and takes place, largely unnoticed every day.

The CDC was quick to add a statement to their website mentioning the movie and pointing out the real-life role of the CDC in epidemiology.

As laboratorians we can be proud that we play medical detectives every day. The public health is protected and preserved as we assiduously analyze, interpret and report vital information that saves countless lives. Now that sort of competence and commitment beat any blockbuster movie hands down.


Love, love  love this movie. Go see it Ryan. You cant judge it if you havent seen it. It is interesting and exciting but it didnt show anything that was impossible or made up. In fact scientists say it is very realistic. There were no creatures from space or viruses flying through the air infecting people randomly. It showed microbes spead in a very realistic way. If anything it shows the public how scientists work but it should not cause fear from anyone. It is unfair to judge it if you havent seen it.

Melissa Sanchez, MT October 1, 2011 12:52 AM
Galveston TX

I choose not to see this movie. Not on the basis of fear, but because I think it was put out at this time of year to spark fear in the public for the upcoming influenza season.  It will only mean big buck$ for the pharma companies and the government will succeed in getting the sheep in line for their yearly jab.

I may sound skeptical, but think ...  this simple movie riding on the coattails of the famously over-hyped swine flu will mean that big-pharma will get a good return on their investment.

Hopefully this movie finds its way to the $5 bin at WalMart real quick.

Ryan September 24, 2011 8:07 AM

I saw this movie and loved it. I agree that it was pretty true to life.  One thing which is really remarkable to me is how the public does not see large scale testing in disasters is done by MTs or people with laboratory training.  They know we do test in a hospital lab when they go to see their doctor or when they are in a hospital. But when it comes to things like 911 and anthrax and so on they think it's some doctors or other mysterious scientists who do the test. I recommend this movie and suggest every MT talks about it with their friends and family pointing out that MTs do that sort of work.

Maria Cardoza, MT(ASCP) September 18, 2011 7:00 PM
Brooklyn NY

Joachin: Thanks for the comments.

Blanca: What a good idea to go as a group. It will make for an interesting discussion afterwards. Please ccome back and share with us on the blog your collective impressions (for and against).

Glen McDaniel September 17, 2011 12:17 AM

Wonderful!  The senior class of MLS students are taking a breather in-between exams next week and going as group.  We have had many lengthy discussions how Hollywood can incorrectly portray science into lab experiments gone wild.  Spinning centrifuges with hot specimens with no cover and aerosolized agents (Outbreak) and the nucleotides (A, G, U, and T) of DNA (Red Planet) have literally given some of our students (myself included) hives due to the inaccuracies.  It's good to know Hollywood has finally found a legitimate source of science feedback for this movie!  Looking forward to some "off-time" next week not thinking about school work!

Blanca Martinez, MLS - Student, APSU September 16, 2011 4:56 PM
Clarksville TN


Great blog about an amazing movie. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I agree, too, that lab professionals were cast in a positive light. The negative focus seemed to bend toward pharma.

The music was intense and captivating, and the dialogue was done well. Perhaps I am biased because I'm an editor of a laboratory magazine, but I was quite pleased with how this was written, produced and executed. It was refreshing to see the honesty of how long some procedures can and do take rather than uninformed writers incorporating 2-second turnaround times into the script.

Check this out: the CDC is hosting "Contagion" Twitter Chats on Friday and Monday. Should provide even more background into how they worked with the writers and producers on the film.

Matthew T. Patton, , Editor ADVANCE September 14, 2011 10:28 PM
King of Prussia PA

Good movie. Good article. I too felt that it showed the lab in a good light. I know for a fact that many of the roles mentioned do exist at the CDC. Every day we deal with problems in the lab. Finding a sickle cell or leukemia or antibody is every bit as important to someone, some family as a world wide virus . So yes we do work miracles every day in the lab.

Joachin B September 14, 2011 10:08 PM
Ft Lauderdale FL

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