Peter Piot discovered Ebola when, as a young scientist in Antwerp, he received a blood sample from a nun who had a mysterious ailment in what was then Zaire.
The doctor who sent the sample wanted it tested for yellow fever, but tests for that, as well as Lassa fever and typhoid, came back negative. After injecting the blood into lab animals in an attempt to isolate the virus from the sample, animals began to die and “we began to realize that the sample contained something quite deadly,” Piot tells the Guardian, “…It was clear to us that we were dealing with one of the deadliest infectious diseases the world had ever seen,” he recalls.
They named the virus Ebola after what they thought was the nearest river, though they later learned they’d gotten it wrong.
“I always thought that Ebola, in comparison to AIDS or malaria, didn’t present much of a problem because the outbreaks were always brief and local,” he says, but “around June it became clear to me that there was something fundamentally different about this outbreak.” That’s because, he says, a “perfect storm” unfolded: The countries involved were dealing with civil wars, which meant doctors had fled and healthcare systems had collapsed, and the outbreak started in a densely-populated border region, making it more difficult to track down people who had been exposed.
“This isn’t just an epidemic any more. This is a humanitarian catastrophe,” he says. “I really never thought that it could get this bad.”