Prof. Ian Lipkin Brings Science to Hollywood's Contagion

Internationally-renowned “microbe hunter” worked closely with filmmakers to ensure accuracy of star-studded Soderbergh movie about pandemic.

August 27, 2011

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s new movie Contagion imagines a deadly virus outbreak that quickly sweeps around the world.  The gripping story is fiction, but the global pandemic it portrays is entirely realistic. Soderbergh and Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns were committed to the truth of the film right from the start and sought out Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the world’s foremost microbe hunters and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, to tap his scientific expertise as they developed the concept.

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It wasn’t the first time Hollywood had knocked on Dr. Lipkin’s door, but it was the first time he said “yes.”  Lipkin was persuaded that “this was an effort to accurately represent the science and to make a movie that would entertain as well as educate.” Now that it is opening in theaters, he hopes that Contagion will help people to understand the urgent public health challenges that we face in the 21st century due to increasing international trade and travel, urbanization, loss of wildlife habitats, and inadequate investment in infrastructure for surveillance  and vaccine production and distribution.

After early conversations about the movie concept, Lipkin signed on as technical adviser to Contagion in March, 2009 and played an active role throughout production.  He suggested the movie’s plot might be triggered by an outbreak of a virus similar to Nipah, a deadly virus that has, on occasion, migrated from animals to people.

At Columbia, Dr. Lipkin is the director of the Mailman School of Public Health’s renowned Center for Infection and Immunity, which does cutting-edge work in microbe detection and discovery. He has identified more than 400 new viruses and was the first to determine that West Nile virus was the cause of the 1999 encephalitis epidemic in New York City.

Some of the scenes in Contagion reflect Dr. Lipkin’s vivid memories of Beijing when he assisted the World Health Organization and the Chinese Health Ministry manage the SARS outbreak in 2003.  At risk on the frontlines of the epidemic, as public health professionals sometimes are, he became ill and was quarantined when he returned to the U.S.  On the movie set, Dr. Lipkin shared his experience in China with Matt Damon, offering the actor insight into what it feels like to be behind glass and cut off from loved ons. 

Dr. Lipkin also coached Contagion actors on the practices and process of scientific research. Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle visited the Center for Infection and Immunity to learn the mechanics of being a bench scientist, working with the lab’s equipment to do technical procedures. And Elliott Gould, who plays a research scientist named “Ian,” talked to Dr. Lipkin about the intellectual process of making a scientific breakthrough. Suggesting to the actor how to look through a microscope and reflect on what it reveals, “I told Elliott it’s important that you get this right, because you are playing me,” Dr. Lipkin recalls.

The laboratory at the Center for Infection and Immunity, where Dr. Lipkin and his team of 65 conduct their research, also has an invisible role in the movie. In pursuit of authenticity, Contagion’s production crew traveled to the lab to record centrifuges whirring, liquid nitrogen hissing, and even the squeaky noise of opening animal cage doors for the film’s soundtrack.

In addition to his work at Columbia, Dr. Lipkin co-chairs the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee (NBAS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was established in response to a Homeland Security Presidential Directive recognizing that infectious diseases are an increasing threat to the nation. From that perspective, Dr. Lipkin hopes that Contagion will be a wake-up call for the public that today’s fiction could easily become fact tomorrow.  He says, “Science is critical to address these challenges. We’ve been through this with SARS. We will be through it again.”

Link to NBAS Report at​

About The Center for Infection and Immunity

The Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health is committed to global health through innovative research and training programs in infectious diseases.

In addition to establishing and implementing programs for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of acute outbreaks of infectious disease, Center for Infection and Immunity scientists investigate chronic diseases in which prenatal or early life exposure to infections or immunotoxins may be implicated, including premature birth, cerebral palsy, autism, AD/HD, obsessive compulsive disorders, schizophrenia, type I diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer. This work is pursued using animal models, genomic and proteomic tools, and unique databases and biological materials obtained from partners in a global network. In collaboration with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, we are investigating gene-environment-timing interactions in neurodevelopmental disorders and discovering biomarkers to enable early identification and treatment of children at risk for autism and related disorders.