Peter Piot Discovered the Ebola Virus
Peter Piot was among a group of researchers to have first discovered the Ebola virus in 1976.Reuters

When Peter Piot first received a package of blood sample from Africa in 1976, while working as a junior in a Belgium lab, he did not know he was going to get his first encounter with the now infamous Ebola virus, which arrived in a 'cheap plastic thermos flask' on a passenger aircraft.

The Ebola epidemic had first broken out in Africa along the Congo river in 1976, and was reported as 'yellow fever with haemorrhagic manifestations.' The blood sample of an affected nun had been sent to the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, where Piot worked as a freshly graduated physician.

Piot, along with two other colleagues opened the flask with the virus without suits or masks, something the epidemiologist says in his book makes him "wince just to think about it."

Piot has chronicled his tryst with the deadly virus in the book 'No Time to Lose', an excerpt of which was published in a science journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"We didn't even imagine the risk we were taking. Indeed, shipping those blood samples in a simple thermos, without any kind of precautions, was an incredibly perilous act. Maybe the world was a simpler, more innocent place in those days, or maybe it was just a lot more reckless," Piot wrote, indicating how the world was yet to grasp the potent of the virus.

The thermos had contained two vials, each containing clotted blood of the Flemish nun who had contracted the virus in Zaire (now 'Democratic Republic of Congo'). The researchers went on to test the samples on mice, with "no more precautions than if we had been handling a routine case of salmonella or tuberculosis," according to Piot.

Piot added, "It never occurred to us that something far more rare and much more powerful might have just entered our lives."

The group realized that there was a pathogenic virus in the blood samples, when all the mice they had tested on died a few days later.

Meanwhile, in Africa, in a village called Yambuku, the virus had already killed 200 people, following violent haemorrhagic symptoms and bleeding along with high fever and vomiting.

Later they had discovered that the virus was being spread through the reuse of infected needles on pregnant women and through the customary funeral process. "Someone who dies is washed, the body is laid out but you do this with bare hands. Someone who died from Ebola, that person is covered with virus because of vomitus, diarrhea, blood," Piot told AFP in an interview.

Piot and his team identified the Ebola virus, on 12 October 1976, and in the photographs of a cell sample, they noticed "very large, long, wormlike structures" that were "nothing like yellow fever."

Piot's reaction after discovering the virus was that of excitement and ambition. He wrote in the book about his desire to go on the field where the epidemic had broken out, instead of handing over further research to the World Health Organisation.

"Why should we leave it to the Americans and WHO to do the epidemiological work on the ground, where the epidemic was certainly still underway? How often does a small research institute in Belgium have the opportunity to make medical history? It's not often that a twenty-seven-year-old comes within reach of the discovery of a new virus, and it looked as though the virus we cultivated had a fighting chance of being just that," he wrote.

Soon, Piot got the chance to travel to Africa, where he reportedly put his life at risk to understand the Ebola epidemic, and also worked on the AIDS epidemic.

Piot later went on to work as the Executive Director of the United Nations body UNAIDS and is currently the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He has called the current outbreak of the disease "unprecedented", terming it "an epidemic of dysfunctional health systems."

"You need really close contact to become infected. So just being on the bus with someone with Ebola, that's not a problem," Piot told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

"Simple measures like washing with soap and water, not re-using syringes, and avoiding contact with infected corpses are sufficient to stop its spread," he said.

Also read