Like Tintin, the comic-book hero of his childhood, Peter Piot has lived a series of amazing adventures. Beginning with a 1976 foray into what was then Zaire, Piot aided in the discovery of the first outbreak of Ebola, spending several months on the ground during a harrowing epidemic to determine the epidemiology of the emergent virus. This experience shaped the rest of his life, leading to a career in infectious disease research and policy, as detailed in No Time to Lose.
Piot returned to Europe a changed man. He completed a doctorate in his native Belgium, setting the stage for a career in sexually transmitted disease research. He set up a clinic in Antwerp to care for those affected by STDs, and witnessed the emergence of HIV/Aids in that city's homosexual population, mirroring reports coming out of the US. Intrigued, he also noticed that many African sailors entering Antwerp's port were similarly affected by this novel syndrome. Thus began his introduction to a lifetime of work on HIV/Aids. Via blood that had been banked during the 1976 Ebola outbreak, he and his collaborators were able to show that HIV was present in Africa well before its explosion on to the world stage.
The remainder of the book examines how this finding shaped his life and career, as Piot became one of the leading researchers and policymakers on the African Aids epidemic. Along the way, he worked in more than a dozen African countries and held positions at the United Nations. In 1995, Piot led the creation of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids and served as its executive director until 2008.
This book recalls Nicholas Kristof's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) as it details the difficulties of global health research and evaluating health intervention programmes on the ground, while at the same time showcasing the amazing work of Africans (particularly African women). It also echoes Richard Preston's The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story (1999) as it describes the horrors caused by the various infectious diseases Piot has encountered during his impressive career. He recounts tales of harrowing events during the Ebola outbreak, including downed planes and dead pilots bloating in the jungle heat, as well as equally unsettling stories of the terrors of international politics and diplomacy. He candidly documents his own successes and failures, missteps and outright mistakes: unaware of their contents, Piot once opened vials of Ebola, broken and half-frozen, upon arrival from Africa, wearing only minimal protective gear; and he left frank, secret memos from KofiAnnan, who was then UN secretary general, in the bathroom at a conference, making it possible for the reporters who came across them to publish their contents. He has been targeted by Aids activists and lauded by Cuba's Fidel Castro; he has also been made a baron by the Belgian government and (reluctantly) a member of the National Order of the Leopard by Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire.
While the focus of the book is very clearly Piot's scientific career, it would have been beneficial to get more of a peek at the man behind the curtain. There are brief mentions of his family, including his former wife Greta (who was pregnant with the couple's first child while Piot was investigating Ebola in Zaire) and their children, but these are short and used by the author mainly to express regret. While he notes in the prologue that "this is not an autobiography" but instead a "memoir of discovery", the reader is left at the end with little insight into Piot as a person rather than as a scientist/diplomat, particularly in the later chapters discussing his Aids policy work. Nevertheless, No Time to Lose will serve as an inspiration to anyone looking to understand, or break into, global health research and policy.
No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses
By Peter Piot
W.W. Norton, 304pp, £17.99
Published 5 July 2012