Near the end of Steven Soderbergh’s epidemipic Contagion, as the bodies pile up around the world, a scientist goes to visit her dying father in hospital. She takes off her face mask. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks. ‘It’s OK,’ she says, and kisses him on the forehead. In a previous scene we’ve seen her inject herself with an experimental vaccine, and now she’s testing it. ‘Do you remember Dr Barry Marshall?’ she says. ‘He thought that bacteria, not stress, caused ulcers. Gave himself the bug and then cured himself. You taught me about him.’
The New York Times journalist Lawrence Altman called his history of self-experimentation in medicine Who Goes First? When I got home from the cinema I found a flyer with a jaunty space-invader graphic lying on the floor among the kebab-house menus and cab-company cards. ‘Help us beat cold and flu bugs!’ it said. ‘Help save extra lives.’ I read on:
Do you often find yourself taking on new challenges and frontiers? If the answer is ‘yes’ and you are healthy, 18-45 and do not suffer from hayfever or asthma, then you could help us! At Flu Camp we are always taking on new challenges! We conduct clinical trials that help to develop new treatments for cold and flu viruses.
Flu Camp stresses the innocuousness of inoculation. ‘Compensation’ of £3750 is offered to those willing to be infected with flu and isolated in a quarantine unit for 18 days. I live in a block of mainly council housing in Hackney, and it’s not hard to guess who Flu Camp is targeting. Who goes first? In this case, the poor.