As the UK endures another lockdown and watches the coronavirus death toll go past 100,000, one source of optimism has been the effectiveness of the national vaccine programme, the fastest such rollout in the world.
Now, as well as the effectiveness of the NHS and the work of former vaccine taskforce chief Kate Bingham, a surprising factor in that success has come to the fore: health secretary Matt Hancock’s obsession with a Matt Damon movie featuring a virus-ridden pig.
In the early days of the crisis, Sky News reported, the health secretary constantly reminded advisers of the example of Contagion, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film which has been widely credited as a prescient examination of how a global pandemic might play out. In particular, Hancock wanted his team to heed the movie’s depiction of the complexities of an international race for limited vaccine supply – and make sure that Britain was out in front.
“He was constantly referring to the end of the film,” a former Department of Health and Social Care adviser told Sky. “He was always really aware from the very start, first that the vaccine was really important, second that when a vaccine was developed we would see an almighty global scramble for this thing.”
Hancock was particularly struck by a scene in which a lottery based on birthdates is used to ration supply – not as a policy prescription but as an indication of how precious the vaccine would be.
“To be clear, he didn’t think there was going to be this competition just because he’d seen Contagion,” a source patiently told the Guardian. “The UK vaccine effort was in no way built on the epidemiological model of watching a film – it was an illustrative example. He would say: ‘We’ve all seen Contagion, right?’ It was helpful.”
“A lot of the focus was the need to inject a dose of reality and realpolitik into it,” the source added. “It’s not just about the science of how to develop it, there’s also supply and procurement and stuff that’s about human nature and politics.”
Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University and chief scientific consultant on Contagion, said it was “obviously quite gratifying” when told of Hancock’s interest by the Guardian. “The whole idea was to try to inform people about what they needed to anticipate,” he said.
But he noted that the message behind his collaboration with screenwriter Scott Burns was not to encourage so-called vaccine nationalism but to warn of its dangers.
“We have to vaccinate the entire world, there’s absolutely no question about that,” he said. “As long as there is a population that has not been vaccinated, there is a high likelihood that this thing is going to continue to evolve. So, people who don’t understand or appreciate that – it’s not only unethical, it’s also not in your self-interest.”
Hancock is far from the first to notice the eerie example set out in Contagion, which remains strikingly apposite amid ongoing concerns about the distribution of the vaccine in the developing world. At one point, a news anchor says in voiceover: “As labs work around the clock to produce the lifesaving formula, the question remains: who gets it first?”
The biggest risk to the UK’s vaccine supply now appears to be from the EU, which has had issues in securing supplies and briefly looked to trigger a Brexit deal clause to place controls on the export of vaccines to Northern Ireland last week before reversing course. But Hancock’s chief concern was the possible threat from across the Atlantic – and a president whose behaviour was definitively unpredictable.
“He’d often warn that we have to have our own supply chains,” the source said. “A lot of the stuff about boosting vaccine security and having UK-based supply chains was about a slight nervousness over what Donald Trump might do.”
Despite his warning about vaccine nationalism, Lipkin said he was relieved that Contagion had become a touchstone for explaining the crisis rather than some of its predecessors. “We made the film this way because, you know, movies about viruses are about flesh-eating zombies and so on,” he said.
Indeed, the news of Hancock’s reference point may prompt some relief that he had not watched Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie.
In that film, a mother recognises an infected monkey, played by Marcel from Friends, after seeing a photograph and comparing it to a drawing by her child, which has befriended the animal. The toddler eventually coaxes the monkey out so that Cuba Gooding Jr can shoot it with a tranquilliser dart. That allows Hoffman to use its blood in an “antiserum” transfusion for his ailing ex-wife after evading a crazed general in a helicopter chase.
As yet, there is no evidence that Hancock has encouraged his advisers to shoot any animals. “We tried to ground our movie in the best science we could find,” said Rudkin. “In Outbreak they don’t even get the monkey right.”
— to www.theguardian.com