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'In 1976 I discovered Ebola - now I fear an unimaginable tragedy'

Professor Piot, as a young scientist in Antwerp, you were part of the team that discovered the Ebola virus in 1976. How did it happen?
I still remember exactly. One day in September, a pilot from Sabena Airlines brought us a shiny blue Thermos and a letter from a doctor in Kinshasa in what was then Zaire. In the Thermos, he wrote, there was a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had recently fallen ill from a mysterious sickness in Yambuku, a remote village in the northern part of the country. He asked us to test the sample for yellow fever.
These days, Ebola may only be researched in high-security laboratories. How did you protect yourself back then?
We had no idea how dangerous the virus was. And there were no high-security labs in Belgium. We just wore our white lab coats and protective gloves. When we opened the Thermos, the ice inside had largely melted and one of the vials had broken. Blood and glass shards were floating in the ice water. We fished the other, intact, test tube out of the slop and began examining the blood for pathogens, using the methods that were standard at the time.
But the yellow fever virus apparently had nothing to do with the nun's illness.
No. And the tests for Lassa fever and typhoid were also negative. What, then, could it be? Our hopes were dependent on being able to isolate the virus from the sample. To do so, we injected it into mice and other lab animals. At first nothing happened for several days. We thought that perhaps the pathogen had been damaged from insufficient refrigeration in the Thermos. But then one animal after the next began to die. We began to realize that the sample contained something quite deadly.
But you continued?
Other samples from the nun, who had since died, arrived from Kinshasa. When we were just about able to begin examining the virus under an electron microscope, the World Health Organisation instructed us to send all of our samples to a high-security lab in England. But my boss at the time wanted to bring our work to conclusion no matter what. He grabbed a vial containing virus material to examine it, but his hand was shaking and he dropped it on a colleague's foot. The vial shattered. My only thought was: "Oh, shit!" We immediately disinfected everything, and luckily our colleague was wearing thick leather shoes. Nothing happened to any of us.
In the end, you were finally able to create an image of the virus using the electron microscope.
Yes, and our first thought was: "What the hell is that?" The virus that we had spent so much time searching for was very big, very long and worm-like. It had no similarities with yellow fever. Rather, it looked like the extremely dangerous Marburg virus which, like ebola, causes a haemorrhagic fever. In the 1960s the virus killed several laboratory workers in Marburg, Germany.

Were you afraid at that point?
I knew almost nothing about the Marburg virus at the time. When I tell my students about it today, they think I must come from the stone age. But I actually had to go the library and look it up in an atlas of virology. It was the American Centres for Disease Control which determined a short time later that it wasn't the Marburg virus, but a related, unknown virus. We had also learned in the meantime that hundreds of people had already succumbed to the virus in Yambuku and the area around it.
A few days later, you became one of the first scientists to fly to Zaire.
Yes. The nun who had died and her fellow sisters were all from Belgium. In Yambuku, which had been part of the Belgian Congo, they operated a small mission hospital. When the Belgian government decided to send someone, I volunteered immediately. I was 27 and felt a bit like my childhood hero, Tintin. And, I have to admit, I was intoxicated by the chance to track down something totally new.
You were also the one who gave the virus its name. Why Ebola?
On that day our team sat together late into the night – we had also had a couple of drinks – discussing the question. We definitely didn't want to name the new pathogen "Yambuku virus", because that would have stigmatised the place forever. There was a map hanging on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola river. So by around three or four in the morning we had found a name. But the map was small and inexact. We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But Ebola is a nice name, isn't it?

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