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 realise that the sample contained something quite deadly. More