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Coming soon – the next ‘Contagion’ epic


GRAB your popcorn! It’s not front page news yet, but the headlines are already alarming. Take the Daily Mail last Saturday: ‘Next pandemic deemed the “Big One” could be the most contagious and deadliest disease known to humanity, scientists warn’.

The ‘just in case, just in time’ vaccine people at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) who claim to want to save humanity put Nipah, the virus in question, on their ‘Viral Most Wanted’ list on September 23, 2023. Ten days later the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a disease outbreak bulletin for Nipah alerting people to be on the lookout, particularly if they were travelling to parts of India. 

Nipah was identified using PCR tests after a mystery infection struck pig farmers in Malaysia in 1998-1999, and 105 people died of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Sir Jeremy Farrar, then a Vietnam-based medical researcher, helped with the investigation.

Classed with the same family of viruses as measles, mumps, Hendra (an Australian horse disease which can affect humans) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), Nipah is said to have a mortality rate of between 40-75 per cent, similar at the upper end of the range to Ebola, but with a higher ‘pandemic danger quotient’ due fears that it will develop measles-like ease of transmissibility. In scenes reminiscent of the UK’s 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, more than a million pigs were slaughtered to stop the outbreak, and the army was drafted in. 

But you know the storyline of the Nipah epidemic already, courtesy of the 2011 disaster movie Contagion. Released on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this all-star Hollywood blockbuster was propaganda of the highest order. The film’s strapline got one thing right: ‘nothing spreads like fear’ (except perhaps bunkum).  

Spreading fear was the film’s intent: a lethal global pandemic starts when an American woman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, dies two days after returning from a trip to Hong Kong. Doctors tell her husband (Matt Damon) she was killed by an unknown pathogen. The state of Minnesota is locked down because there’s no vaccine and no treatment and a brave scientist (Kate Winslet) from the FBI for diseases – the US Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Epidemic Intelligence Service which really does exist – is dispatched to investigate. It turns out it’s a paramyxovirus like Nipah, spread by the respiratory route. A conspiracy theorist blogger (Jude Law) spreads fear by accusing the government of not telling the public the truth and suppressing a cheap and effective herbal treatment. He’s later found to be a fraud.

And the finale? Amid panic after millions die from the virus, scientists save humanity by rapidly developing a ‘safe and effective’ vaccine. Only those who take the vaccine are allowed out into public, and those who don’t die without its protection.

Covid-era Health Secretary Matt Hancock is said to have been obsessed with the film and used it ‘illustratively’ when speaking to his departmental staff, saying: ‘We’ve all seen Contagion, right?’ ‘He was constantly referring to the end of the film,’ a former Department of Health adviser told Sky News. ‘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.’

The movie was conceived by PanDefense, a ‘pandemic advisory’ set up to ‘imagine the trajectory and consequences of a global pandemic in an unprepared world‘ and its founder, Dr Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who once worked for the CDC on the smallpox eradication campaign. In March 2020, Brilliant spoke about the film while participating in a Council on Foreign Relations webcast to discuss Covid-19 along with Dr Tara O’Toole, a principal author of the 2001 Dark Winter smallpox tabletop exercise, and Dr Mark Smolinski, the CEO of Emerging Pandemics, another epidemic surveillance organisation Brilliant is involved with.  

‘In 2010, right after the swine flu outbreak, a group of us, including all three of us, as epidemiologists were concerned that people seeing the swine flu pandemic did not think that it was a very serious pandemic, serious outbreak,’ said Brilliant. ‘And we decided to work to help create a movie called Contagion. That movie, which was a very different virus with a much higher death rate, but in some ways it was very prescient because it also, like Covid-19, showed a disease originating in bats, going to an intermediate animal, and then to humans.’ 

Like Covid, Nipah is claimed to be a zoonotic disease, spread from animals to humans. Contagion’s most famous line, spoken by the Kate Winslet heroine character Dr Erin Mears, explains: ‘Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.’ 

The film’s purpose is to indoctrinate the public to accept authoritarian government measures to manage these invisible mortal perils and to accept vaccination as a panacea. The chief scientific adviser to the film was Dr Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology and another individual involved with PanDefense. Shortly after the film’s release, Lipkin told the Observer: ‘Scientists have been accused of overreacting and crying wolf over the threat of virus outbreaks after the influenza pandemic of 2009 . . . but outbreaks and pandemics will occur and we need to get our heads out of the sand and realise the real risks that we face. More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans.’ 

In February 2021, Lipkin spoke to the Guardian:  ‘We have to vaccinate the entire world [against Covid], there’s absolutely no question about that. 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.’

Yet there is an alternative and cautionary explanation for the Malaysian Nipah outbreak which was the film’s inspiration. As Jeremy Farrar helpfully pointed out in a February 2022 tweet, the Nipah outbreak was originally believed to be Japanese Encephalitis (JE), a seasonal disease prevalent between November and January and spread by mosquitoes. Adults who live in areas where JE is endemic have been exposed multiple times and are immune or asymptomatic, although children and in-comers can be badly affected by. 

The CDC reports (see figure 1 in the link) that the encephalitis cases first occurred in the state of Perak in the north of the Malay Peninsula between October and December 1998. The outbreak with the largest number of victims occurred between February and April 1999 in a distant state. But when the original outbreak was reported on the ProMED disease surveillance system on November 24, 1998, the moderator commented, ‘So, without laboratory confirmation of the affected individuals’ illnesses, vaccination with JE vaccine has been done. We await further information as to the correct diagnosis, i.e. confirmation as JE or evidence for another disease.’ 

It transpires that the Malaysian government responded to the encephalitis outbreak that befell pig farmers by trying to wipe out the breeding grounds of the JE-spreading mosquitos  and by inoculating all the workers with a mouse brain-derived Japanese Encephalitis vaccine. Alarmingly, as Lam Sai Kit, head of the University of Malaya department of medical microbiology, wrote on ProMED on March 1, 1999, the people getting sick and dying had been given two or three doses and the pigs that were also getting sick had been vaccinated too.

The Malaysians were Informed by the US CDC on March 18, that a new virus named Nipah had been identified. Some experts in Malaysia were sceptical that Nipah was a pathogen or if there was enough evidence that it alone was causing the outbreak. 

The question is: Were there certain vested interests in covering up a bad vaccine?

There is currently no approved vaccine for Nipah. As of 2023 CEPI has spent $100million supporting four Nipah vaccine projects including one developed and licensed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to the company Public Health Vaccines. CEPI funded two others in 2018 including an adenoviral vector vaccine developed by the Oxford Jenner Institute team of AstraZeneca Covid vaccine fame. It also awarded $25million to a three-company consortium, Profectus Bioscience, Emergent BioSolutions and PATH, to adapt a Profectus prototype vaccine – its Australian-licensed Hendra paramyxovirus vaccine used in horses – for use in humans against Nipah. Emergent BioSolutions, one of the original financial sponsors of Dr Robert Kadlec’s Bipartisan Biodefense Commission, is to manufacture it. Moderna are developing an mRNA Nipah vaccine under their collaboration with the NIAID, with intellectual property licensed from them too. The NIAID has found itself quite a revenue generator.

In June this year CEPI announced it was funding a project to ‘enhance the world’s limited understanding of the diversity of Nipah virus strains in endemic countries’ to support the development of vaccine as all previous research was done using a single isolate obtained from a patient in the 1999 outbreak. Ominously, it said that no randomised control trials for efficacy would be possible because the outbreaks are too small for a trial to be feasible.

Reading the tea leaves, is there another World Health Organization-defined public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) coming to enable one or another of these vaccines to be deployed under an emergency use authorisation? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. In the spring of 2023 the WHO declared a Nipah outbreak in Bangladesh and in September another in India. The first question to be asked is whether there have been any JE vaccination campaigns in the afflicted areas? 

You’ve been warned: be alert. The ‘Big One’ is a whopper! That’s all, folks! 

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Paula Jardine
Paula Jardine
Paula Jardine is a writer/researcher who has just completed the graduate diploma in law at ULaw. She has a history degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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