By Carlotta Grandstaff
Dr. Ian Lipkin is a scientist most commonly referred to as “eminent.” The New York Times calls him a “Virus-Hunting Master.” To Discover Magazine he is “The World’s Most Celebrated Virus Hunter.”
To Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslett he is “advisor” and, briefly, “co-worker.”
Lipkin is all over the map – literally and scientifically. A Columbia University researcher and professor (more properly, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and Director for Infection and Immunity in the Mailman School of Public Health), Lipkin is among the world’s most noted infectious disease specialist – a modern-day explorer who hunts down and develops diagnostic tests for some of the world’s nastiest microbes: West Nile virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, AIDS-associated inflammatory neuropathy, encephalitis, Borna virus, which causes encephalitis in horses but is also linked to bipolar disorder and depression in humans, even colony collapse disorder in honeybees.
He is on call on five continents, including this one where he was scheduled to speak last Friday night in Hamilton on “Bad Bugs on the Big Screen.” And where, in the Hollywood District of North America, he spent six weeks as technical advisor on the 2011 film “Contagion,” an ominous story of a deadly virus which wreaks havoc on the world until it’s contained and reined in by a team of smart and dedicated American government scientists.
We met Lipkin the morning before his lecture at the Bitterroot River Inn, where he was staying. He breezed into the lobby, a friendly and open fast talker, ready and eager to engage. Not wanting to insult a brilliant scientist who has contributed much to the advancement of public health, we tried not to focus so narrowly on the Hollywood aspect of his career, but we couldn’t help ourselves, announcing right from the beginning that we had seen “Contagion” for the second time only the night before. It was the only prompt he needed before spending the next 30 minutes riffing about Gwyneth and Kate, Steve (Soderbergh, the director), and the brilliance of the make-up artists and construction crews.
“My role in the film was to help build the plot.” And to keep it on track, from a scientific point of view. For instance, who would play the virus? Not influenza, Lipkin said, dismissively. Too boring. It had to be something that grabbed the imagination in that big, graphic, gruesome, Hollywood way. The casting agent – again, Lipkin – cast Nipah virus in the lead, and modified it for the big screen. The Nipah virus is a zoonotic disease that causes severe disease in humans and animals. It first emerged in Malaysia in 1998, and is transmitted from fruit bat to pig to human. It has also been transmitted from human to human, and from infected fruit bat to date palm sap to human. It causes flu-like symptoms, but can also cause dizziness and confusion, as it did to the young, infected waiter in the movie who dizzyingly wandered into traffic and was hit by a truck. (As an aside, Lipkin dishes on the young actor’s real-life girlfriend who, by virtue of the fact that she was one of the wealthiest women in Macau, earned a role in the movie, though he adds that she was probably unhappy with the brevity of it.)
“Contagion” has won wide acclaim for its fidelity to scientific accuracy, which is due both to Lipkin’s insistence and to the filmmakers’ belief in truthfulness over Hollywood glamour. He credits Winslett for her own insistence on precision. When the filmmakers brought in a six-foot glamourpuss to teach Winslett, playing a government field scientist, how to do her nails and hair, Lipkin stepped in with his own real-life female field scientists (“Attractive, but not bombshells.”) less concerned with the Hollywood definition of beauty, and more concerned with doing actual scientific fieldwork, which doesn’t bother much with hair and nails. Winslett followed Lipkin’s lead and let her roots grow out.
He saved Elliott Gould from putting his bare hand into liquid nitrogen. And when actress Jennifer Ehle, playing Dr. Ally Hextall, injected herself in the thigh with the experimental vaccine through her tights Lipkin insisted on hauling her back to the set to do it right the second time, which is most definitely not through tights. “I just tried to make lemonade for them.” Plus, the viewers got a thrill by seeing Ehle’s bare thigh.
Other tidbits Lipkin shared: He makes a couple of cameo appearances, one in a background scene featuring Dr. Sanjay Gupta playing himself; Soderbergh also has a voice cameo as Paltrow’s screen lover; the macaque monkeys in the film were actually models, costing as much as $11,000 apiece, and extremely life like and well done. (“I wanted to make off with one.”); the view from Wabash Ave. in Chicago, where some scenes were shot, looks surprisingly like Kowloon Harbor, where some of the film took place; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, declined the filmmakers’ request for a peek at the bio-level 4 lab. Why, Lipkin doesn’t know. Instead, they used the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Ft. Detrick Md. as the model for the film version, despite the institute’s outdated biohazard suits, which are not nearly as well done as our own local suits. “You’ve got really great French suits here,” he said of the biolevel 4 lab at Rocky Mountain Laboratories. “Sleek and well made.”
At least one scene with Winslett and Matt Damon ended up on the cutting room floor. In it, Damon suggests that his blood be cloned in order to vaccinate his daughter. Too much science, not enough Hollywood.
Overall, though, the film strictly adhered to the science of a ghastly zoonotic disease let loose on the world. And those extremely competent government scientists who behave better than about anyone else? We have Lipkin to thank. “That was me.”
As far as accuracy is concerned, the only fly in the Petri dish was the unrealistically short time it took those extremely competent film scientists to develop a vaccine. But, “as I told Fauci” (that would be the renowned immunologist Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), better maybe for science to follow Hollywood’s lead on this one and develop those vaccines lickety-split.
Next on Lipkin’s plate is his role in the development of a television drama featuring more insidious viruses. Director? “No,” he said quickly. “That’s too hard.”
Then he was gone, out the door to meet up with “Jack” – Mauer, that is, a local fly-fishing guide and himself an eminence in the rarefied world of trout hunting. It was to be Lipkin’s first fly-fishing adventure in a life seemingly filled with it.