When I advised the script development of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie, Contagion, screenwriter Scott Burns and I puzzled over what sort of virus ought to be the center of the Matt Damon-starring film. Fellow advisor Ian Lipkin, a veteran virus hunter from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, shared no such confusion: It should be a Nipah-like virus. After all, he argued, the virus that first hit the Malaysian village of Kampung Sungai Nipah in 1998 kills more than 70 percent of people it infects, making it one of the most lethal human pathogens on Earth. Lipkin then made up a genetic sequence for his hypothetical virus, based on a real Nipah strain, with genes added to render it highly contagious from human to human.
The Nipah virus now spreading in southern India doesn’t possess Lipkin’s imaginary contagion-inducing genes, which is why most people don’t acquire their infections from other people. Though the virus can spread via saliva, Nipah is not an airborne supercontagious agent like measles or influenza. The current outbreak has claimed 17 lives, all in the southern state of Kerala, and authorities there have placed 2,000 people under observation. Among the deceased was Lini Puthussery, a 28-year-old nurse who became infected while treating the first Nipah cases — adult brothers from a rural district.
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