Texas A&M University System scientists want cinephiles to know that the scenario in Contagion — director Steven Soderbergh's star-studded account of the response to a global pandemic — is a very real possibility. And also, that if it did come to pass, they'd play a major role in solving the problem.
In the film, Gwyneth Paltrow's character catches a highly contagious, highly fatal bug from bad pork and proceeds to spread the disease around until millions are dead and nearly the entire world is threatened. "It's much closer to reality than it is to fiction," says Brett Giroir, the vice chancellor of strategic initiatives at the A&M System, who has been working to position the institution as a major part of the solution to just such a problem.
The plot mostly follows the scientists trying to track down the source and the cure of the deadly virus. And, because this is a movie, after all, Giroir says there's a bit that strains credibility: The amount of time between the discovery of a cure and the widespread manufacture and distribution of the vaccine happens too quickly.
"The U.S. is not prepared currently to make the number of doses of vaccines that would be needed to protect the country, much less the world, in a time that would matter," he says.
In reality, he says, with today's technology, it might take seven to eight months — though he believes that technology being developed by the A&M System has the capability to cut that time in half and rapidly produce massive quantities of a vaccine.
In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a request for proposals for what it calls the "National Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing," which could receive upwards of $1.2 billion. In response, the A&M System assembled a team of more than 20 companies, universities and medical research centers to bid for the award.
"We've demonstrated it technologically and have a proof of concept," Giroir says. "The U.S. still needs to fund it and expand to create that capability."
Already, the A&M System works to prevent such an outbreak by conducting routine surveillance of animals across the state looking for a leg up on any viruses that might cause major health trouble for humans. "There is no doubt in my mind that the health of animals and humans is inextricably linked," says Tammy Beckham, director of A&M's Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.
Beckham agrees that the A&M System would play a "vital" part in both the prevention and response to a Contagion-esque scenario.
"I would never expect what we do to get into the movies," Giroir says. "It's not the most glamorous piece, but it's the piece that's ultimately going to wind up saving tens of millions of people."