Amazon’s blurb on Piot’s 2012 memoir, “No Time To Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses,” even credits him with choosing Ebola’s name.
There’s a small problem here, however. Piot did not discover Ebola on his own — and depending on how you define discovery, may not be able to actually make the claim at all.
He definitely did not choose the name Ebola.
Piot was involved in early lab work on what was later shown to be a new virus. And he played a significant part in the investigation into the dreadful disease’s first recorded outbreak, back in 1976, when he was 27.
But over the years he has come to be credited, perhaps unwittingly, with an outsized role in the story of Ebola, to the mounting annoyance of infectious disease scientists who have known better.
In an interview for this article, Piot said he never claimed to be the sole discoverer of Ebola.
“Maybe I should have been more proactive whenever someone claimed that I was ‘the’ discoverer,’’ he mused.
For some, the narrative that has taken hold has been tantamount to a rewriting of history.
On the issue of Ebola’s discovery, the facts are quite clear: Bragging rights go to a team of scientists who in 1976 worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are: Dr. Karl Johnson, then head of special pathogens; Dr. Patricia Webb, a virologist and Johnson’s wife at the time, who is now deceased; James Lange, a CDC scientist who was involved in the fight against the recent West Africa Ebola outbreak; and Frederick Murphy, then chief of the viral pathology branch. Murphy took the iconic picture of the virus that is still used.
The short version of the key events goes like this:
When a mysterious and generally lethal illness raced through Yambuku, in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, a laboratory at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, was the first outside of the country to receive blood samples drawn from a patient who died. Piot, fresh out of medical school, was a junior researcher in the lab, run by Dr. Stefaan Pattyn.
Pattyn’s lab found a virus in the blood, and he and his team were the first to see it through the lens of a powerful electron microscope.
But Pattyn and his colleagues didn’t know what they were looking at. They saw a lasso-shaped virus that resembled Marburg virus — the cause of a similar type of hemorrhagic fever that was discovered nine years earlier — but didn’t have the ability to determine for sure whether what they observed was something new.
The Antwerp lab was not equipped to work on deadly viruses like Marburg, so the World Health Organization instructed Pattyn to send the samples to the British military laboratories at Porton Down. Scientists there started studying it, but also sent a sample to the CDC.
The Atlanta team was able to show that the Yambuku outbreak was caused by a previously unknown virus, not Marburg. Webb ran the critical tests.
“Certainly those who should get credit for discovery actually knew they discovered something new,” recalled Dr. Joel Breman, a CDC epidemiologist in 1976 who led the field investigation of the outbreak at Yambuku. “Knowing what this is, different from anything else — that is the discovery of a new organism.”
The Antwerp, Porton Down, and CDC teams co-published papers describing their roles in the Ebola discovery in the March 12, 1977, issue of the Lancet. There were 15 authors in all.
Piot was one of five authors of the Antwerp paper, though by his own account he had to fight for that credit. In his memoir, Piot wrote about being furious when he saw a draft that did not list him as an author. He confronted Pattyn, who conceded.
Piot, now 67, was the youngest member of the original Ebola investigative team and is still active professionally; some of the others have retired and some have died.
His was also one of the leading voices demanding that the world step up in the summer of 2014, when West Africa was engulfed in an Ebola outbreak of a previously unimaginable scale. That led to many interviews.
In the interview with STAT, Piot acknowledged credit for the actual discovery belongs to Johnson and the CDC team.
He noted, though, that he and others in Pattyn’s lab felt they had the right to describe themselves as co-discoverers, because of the work they did to isolate the virus from the original blood sample.
Piot said if he saw himself being described as the discoverer of Ebola, he would try to correct the error, but he rarely reads articles written about himself.
It is true in journalism that uncorrected errors can beget more errors. Reporters researching a topic often read previously written articles on it.
It’s also possible Piot’s own description of events contributed to the misunderstanding.
In 2014, to mark his 65th birthday, he returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo — writing about the trip in the Financial Times. “When I was 27 and still in training, I had one of the greatest opportunities an aspiring microbiologist could dream of: the chance to discover a new virus, investigate its mode of transmission, and stop the outbreak,” he recalled.
In his memoir, Piot describes his frustration at having to let another lab finish the job Pattyn’s was not equipped to do.
“I felt strong that we shouldn’t hand this world-class discovery over to some other team. We had identified this virus, after all, so we should be the ones to establish its lethality and its real effects on the ground.”
On that latter point, he got his wish. Belgium wanted to have a presence on the team sent to investigate and control the outbreak in its former colony and Piot was asked to go.
The leaders of that effort were Johnson and Breman. Johnson was the scientific director of the International Commission, as it was called, and Breman was the chief of epidemiology, control, and surveillance.
“It was absolute chaos and tumult when we arrived,” Breman recalled.
He credits the father of actress Glenn Close for opening many doors for the team. The late Dr. Bill Close was the personal physician to Zaire’s president at the time, Mobutu Sese Seko, and ran the biggest hospital in the capital, Kinshasa.
“There is no doubt that without Bill, this would have been a very bumpy road,” Breman said.
For instance, Close secured for the team a plane that would take Breman, Piot, and three others to a town within driving distance of Yambuku, which was under a quarantine order and martial law.
In his book, Piot described being warned against entering the mission by a Belgian nun who called out that to enter was to die. But the team began the job of trying to trace how the outbreak started and how the virus spread.
The report of the investigation was published in 1978 in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. The decision was made, Breman said, to publish under the authorship of the 45-member International Commission rather than list some but not all names.
Earlier this month, several of the scientists who were involved in the discovery of Ebola and the investigation of the first outbreak described the full history of the effort in a paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Piot was one of the authors.
“It was the CDC laboratory that identified and recognized a new hitherto unknown virus that fulfilled the criteria for discovery of a new virus,” the paper declares.
In scientific publishing, when there are multiple authors, by convention the first and last among them are the most important. Breman, who circulated roughly a dozen drafts among his colleagues, is the first author of the new paper.
The final spot went to Johnson, who led the CDC team and who proposed the name Ebola, after a Congolese river. In the early days of the outbreak, people were calling the disease Yambuku fever, but he argued to name it thus would forever stigmatize the settlement.
In an email, Johnson expressed satisfaction that with the journal publication, the record on Ebola’s discovery and naming has been set straight.
“Finally the correct attribution regarding who isolated and showed a virus new to science and gave it name has been officially done,” wrote Johnson, who had a hand in the discovery of a number of viruses over his long and distinguished career.
Breman said that he and other scientists had been startled when, several years ago, Piot — whom he describes as “family” — published a book that seemed to create an impression in some quarters that he had discovered Ebola.
But today, there is no frostiness in his voice when he discusses Piot and his role in Ebola’s detection. He is also pleased to have set out the facts for posterity.
“There’s no contention,” he said. “The authors of this paper fully agree.”
Editor’s note: After this story was published, the Amazon blurb on Piot’s memoir, “No Time To Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses,” was changed so as to not credit him with choosing Ebola’s name.