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How a virologist who discovered a virus in Africa almost succumbed to another

M Somasekhar | Updated on May 15, 2020

Peter Piot (file photo)

I’m glad it’s not Ebola: Peter Piot recounts his successful battle against Covid-19

He spent a lifetime taming viruses. He co-discovered the Ebola virus way back in 1976, and led the charge against the HIV virus to stem its spread.

But Covid-19 got the better of his immunity. The coronavirus infected Peter Karel Piot and landed the Belgian born ‘ Virus Warrior’ in a London hospital in late March. But, seven weeks hence, the 71-year-old is recuperating after bravely battling the virus.

Piot, who heads the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has recounted his story — which is inspiring and yet scary — to Dirk Draulans for the magazine Science. Here , he describes how close he came to being felled by Covid-19 but fought back.

Corona vs Ebola

In a moving narrative, Piot says that after fighting viruses all over the world for more than 40 years, he had become an expert in infections. “I’m glad I had corona and not Ebola, although I read a scientific study yesterday that concluded you have a 30 per cent chance of dying if you end up in a British hospital with Covid-19,” he says. “That’s about the same overall mortality rate as for Ebola in 2014 in West Africa.”

“I have devoted my life to fighting viruses and, finally, they get their revenge,” he notes. “For a week, I balanced between heaven and earth, on the edge of what could have been the end.”

Exactly a month before the health crisis hit Piot, he was in India as a keynote speaker at the BioAsia 2020 event in Hyderabad. Seizing the opportunity, I had caught up with the ‘Man who discovered Ebola virus’ for an interview.

Those were early days for Covid-19, with 75,000 cases in China and a thin spread in some European countries.

But Piot did foresee trouble. “The (Covid) situation is worrisome. Unlike SARS, the infection rate is very high. What makes Covid-19 more challenging is its nature of transmission — through the respiratory route — which is rather quick. Ebola spreads more through personal contact or food. The best strategy for the present would be screening and keeping track of everybody coming from China,” he warned.

In the months since, the virus has infected over 4 million and led to 296,000 deaths. The best exit from the looming global crisis is a vaccine, says Piot. However, with no drug or vaccine in sight for at least six months, we might never be able to live normally again, he rues.

“I have always had great respect for viruses, and that has not diminished. I have devoted much of my life to the fight against the AIDS virus. It’s such a clever thing — it evades everything we do to block it. Now that I have felt the compelling presence of a virus in my body myself, I look at viruses differently. I realise this one will change my life, despite the confrontational experiences I’ve had with viruses before. I feel more vulnerable,” he tells Science.

What’s different

We knew the Ebola virus originated from bats, he says. The transmission is through physical contact or through body fluids. It is also localised to Africa. In four decades, a vaccine is available and so is a drug, he explains.

The HIV/AIDS virus too foxed scientists for decades. But the development of effective anti-retrovirals (especially affordable ones from Indian drug makers like Cipla, Hetero and Aurobindo) and access to the drug for the affected poor across the globe helped control the spread and improve lives, says Piot, who was Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme from 1995 to 2008.

“I am conversant with the effective work carried out in the Indian healthcare sector, fighting infectious diseases, especially the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), led by JVR Prasada Rao for years. Similarly, I am involved with the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), led by K Srinath Reddy, a noted cardiologist in handling several disease management,” he had told BusinessLine.

Way back in 1976, at the young age of 27, Piot and team, studying a mysteries disease in Africa, had discovered that the Ebola virus was being spread by Belgian nurses who were giving pregnant mothers vitamin shots using reusable syringes.

Covid-19 is turning out to be a completely different and tough virus to tame, says Piot. Therefore, we should tread cautiously till a preventive vaccine or drug is found.

The novel coronavirus has affected many well known personalities including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin and Hollywood actor Tom Hanks.

Published on May 15, 2020

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