Little did viewers know that while medical news anchor Dr. Sanjay Gupta denounced Dr. Andrew Wakefield approximately one year ago on CNN and CBS - right after the British Medical Journal (BMJ) accused him of fraud - a movie of pure vaccine industry propaganda was being filmed with Dr. Gupta in its cast. That movie, Contagion, was about the outbreak of a fictional swine flu virus that jumped species and caused a pandemic, stopped only by a fictional vaccine developed by the CDC. In that film, Dr. Gupta played himself as a mainstream media reporter.
In the part of the film where Gupta appeared, he was on television interviewing the fictional CDC doctor, Ellis Cheever, played by Laurence Fishburne, and fictional anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist blogger, Alan Krumweide, played by Jude Law.
In real life, Dr. Gupta appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper in a one-way smear attack on Dr. Wakefield that masqueraded as an “interview” just before Seth Mnookin made his television debut on that same show as the vaccine industry’s new spokesman. In stark contrast, Mnookin was given an open forum to spew his talking points while simultaneously interviewed by Cooper and Dr. Gupta, all three comfortably seated at a table in the AC360 studio of CNN. If there was any commonality between Dr. Gupta’s CNN interviews and his interview in the movie Contagion, it’s that they were all pretend.
In the fictional interview by Dr. Gupta involving Fishburne and Law’s characters, Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever was caught in a lie after Law’s Krumweide revealed that Dr. Cheever gave his fiancée advanced-warning of a citywide quarantine before it was given to the public.
In the real-life but equally pretend interview of Dr. Wakefield involving Dr. Gupta on CNN, Dr. Wakefield was dubbed a liar after recommending his book in response to Brian Deer’s smears that were published and supported by the BMJ.
Back to the fictional interview, Jude Law’s Alan Krumweide said public health officials like Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever are in a conspiracy with vaccine makers, “because they are.” Krumweide insisted, “They’re working hand in glove.”
In real-life, Dr. Wakefield was a lot more specific when speaking of the conflicted role of vaccination policymakers, stating that a whistleblower told him that the UK’s Joint Council on Vaccination & Immunisation (JCVI) approved a defective MMR vaccine despite knowing of its dangers while lying to the public that it was safe. The vaccine would eventually be withdrawn and the JCVI would indemnify vaccine makers from lawsuits. The JVCI gang was also behind Brian Deer and the BMJ’s allegations of fraud against Dr. Wakefield, as well as the fitness-to-practice hearing that yanked his medical license.
Since then, BMJ’s prime example of Dr. Wakefield’s alleged misconduct proved flagrantly false , and shortly thereafter the BMJ fraud claim collapsed thanks to the ongoing investigation of Deer’s claims against Dr. Wakefield by the National Whistleblower Center. Yet like Anderson Cooper, Dr. Gupta gave no media attention to these new developments. (However, in 2007, he saw fit to interview Amanda Baggs - a woman who claimed to be severely autistic but was completely normal in school according to former classmates.)
Dr. Gupta clearly has a problem of bias towards drug companies when reporting on the disputed safety of their products. In late 2003, he dismissed reports that Merck’s Vioxx was tied to increased risk of heart attack:
This stat has been around since August of 2001. They talked about the increase of heart attack with Vioxx. The numbers are very small. Perhaps a small percentage increase in the overall risk of heart attacks with Vioxx. They say 37 percent to 39 percent but that's of a very small number. After 90 days, no increased risk.
We've talked to the makers of Vioxx, the Merck company. They say more data is going to really be necessary comparing Vioxx to taking no anti-inflammatories at all. That data is not there yet. So talk to your doctor about the Vioxx, especially if you have concerns about heart disease.
Meanwhile, more people continued to die of heart attacks caused by Vioxx, which was already found to have been associated with an increased risk of heart attack compared to a competitor. By the time Vioxx was withdrawn, it had killed 55,000 people.
An internal email from one Merck employee to another said of doctors questioning the safety of Merck’s product:
We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live…
Fast forward years later, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta was helping Merck and other drug companies that make the MMR vaccine by seeking out Dr. Wakefield for televised character assassination. Gupta failed to inform his viewers, however, that the movie Contagion was currently being filmed and that he was playing himself in the movie. Given who was involved in the film’s production, the need for Dr. Gupta to disclose his role in the film was especially pertinent.
Here is what a top consultant for that film, writer Laurie Garrett, had already said of Mnookin’s book, Panic Virus, in an advanced rave:
There have been hundreds of recent outbreaks of ailments like whooping cough and measles that we thought would be eradicated by now--and might have been, if not for the anti-vaccine obfuscation. Bravo Seth Mnookin for digging for the truth and telling eloquent stories of what happens when lies, half-truths and self-interest collide with fear.
Mnookin’s upcoming book certainly would have been relevant to the agenda of the movie, given that vaccines causing autism was mentioned in the movie itself. Garrett clearly intended to promote Mnookin’s book.
And this was not the first time Garrett gave a glowing review to a book of vaccine industry propaganda. Four years ago, she gave a glowing review in The Washington Post of Arthur Allen's forgettable book, “Vaccine.” Yet her positive review of Allen’s book did not make him like her; this is how he described her when offering his opinion about the recent film for which she consulted:
I had resolved to despise Steven Soderbergh's new movie Contagion after hearing the Council on Foreign Relations' Laurie Garrett, whom I consider the chief propagandist of the bio-terror Chicken Littles, touting her intervention with the filmmakers to assure it was realistic.
Arthur Allen has good reason to be jealous of Laurie Garrett, winner of two Polk Awards, The Peabody Award and The Pulitzer Prize for her bio-terror scare stories. In contrast, Allen had never won a journalism award and was thrown under the bus by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Garrett is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - a powerful think tank that counts many major pharmaceutical companies among its corporate membership, including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Merck. No wonder I was struck by what an obvious propaganda piece Contagion was when I saw it in theaters in September 2011.
Production for the movie began in September 2010 and continued well into 2011 before it finally premiered on September 3, 2011. That Dr. Gupta went down the rabbit hole of vaccine injury denial during the filming of a movie he was involved in suggests callous opportunism on the part of CNN’s chief medical reporter. What kind of journalist would exploit his own credibility as a medical news anchor to appear in a movie with such a strong agenda? What else could cause him to forget his own interview in 2008 with the CDC’s then-director, Dr. Julie Gerberding, who told Dr. Gupta vaccines cause autism?
Meanwhile, Garrett continues her bio-terror chicken-little propaganda in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, where she quoted the movie she consulted for:
And we should heed the question posed in the recently released Hollywood thriller Contagion when a Homeland Security character queries a CDC scientist:
"Is there any way someone could weaponize the bird flu? Is that what we're looking at?"
"Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu," the CDC scientist responds, "The birds are doing that."
What better way to scare people about bio-terrorism than to invoke the argument that if nature can do it, so can we?
Contagion is not just entertainment, but propaganda. Dr. Gupta shamelessly contributed his share of deceit on both the big screen and the TV screen in 2011.
I wonder what 2012 will bring.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is studying for an MPH in epidemiology.