The scientist who discovered the Ebola virus in 1976 after a pilot brought him a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had mysteriously fallen ill in Zaire says the disease has pandemic potential and he now fears that the world is on the edge of an "unimaginable catastrophe."
In an interview with Britain's The Guardian newspaper, the scientist, Peter Piot, who was a researcher in a lab in Antwerp when he made his discovery, discussed a number of things related to his discovery, recalling the details with remarkable clarity:
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.
When asked how he and his fellow researchers protected themselves from what is a highly contagious disease, Piot said at the time they "had no idea how dangerous" it was. Further, he said there were, at the time, no high-security labs for such work in Belgium.
"We just wore our white lab coats and protective gloves," he said. "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."
'I thought I was infected'
At first, it appears as though Piot and his fellow researchers believed the disease might be yellow fever, but they quickly ascertained that it was not, adding that 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," he said.
In order to do that, Piot and his team injected it into mice and lab other lab animals, but for a number of days, nothing happened. The team began to believe that the pathogen, whatever it was, had been damaged by insufficiently cooled temperature inside the Thermos.
"But then one animal after the next began to die. We began to realise that the sample contained something quite deadly," Piot told The Guardian.
Still, Piot and his team continued to work. They received additional blood samples from the nun, who had since died as well, and the virus began to draw more attention.
"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," he said. "But my boss at the time wanted to bring our work to conclusion no matter what."
I really never thought it could get this bad
Piot said his boss grabbed a vial containing the virus to look at it, but he dropped it on a colleague's foot; the vial shattered, and there was fear that the colleague -- and Piot and his team -- would become infected. But they didn't.
When Piot's team mapped the virus with the electron microscope, they were baffled.
"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," he said. "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."
At a later date, Piot did come down with some symptoms that he thought might have been related to Ebola -- a high fever, headache and some diarrhea -- but they cleared up within a day.
Asked if the world has lost control of the outbreak, Piot responded:
I have always been an optimist and I think that we now have no other choice than to try everything, really everything. It's good that the United States and some other countries are finally beginning to help. But Germany or even Belgium, for example, must do a lot more. And it should be clear to all of us: This isn't just an epidemic any more. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don't just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilise entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad.
You can read the full interview here.
To learn more about how to prepare for a potential Ebola crisis in the U.S., be sure to check out: BioDefense.com.
Featured image: CDC director exits Ebola treatment unit, August 27, 2014. Image credit: CDC (via Flickr)