As a member of the team that discovered the Ebola virus during its first known outbreak in 1976, Peter Piot has been in great demand from health bodies and the media since the severity of the current epidemic in West Africa became apparent.
The director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was then a postgraduate student at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. His group was asked to test a vial of blood from a nun who had fallen ill in a remote village in the Congolese rainforest. After identifying the novel pathogen and naming it after a nearby river, Professor Piot did what his childhood hero, Tintin, would have done and flew out to the affected area, helping to contain the outbreak and limit the death toll to about 300.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Piot admitted that he was pining to repeat his mercy dash this time around. But although his institutional responsibilities made that impossible, he has urged colleagues in the school to go in his stead.
In his view, the institution has a “moral responsibility” not only to study the Ebola virus and design containment strategies but also to lend its muscle to the current relief efforts.
Last month, he sent an email to all staff promising to continue to pay the salary of anyone who wanted to volunteer – provided it was through “bona fide” organisations with a good safety record, such as Médecins Sans Frontières or Save the Children.
The response, he said, had been “massive”, with about 100 of the school’s 1,200 staff – plus about 150 students and alumni – taking up the challenge. Five clinicians are currently in Sierra Leone and Liberia helping to oversee the clinical trials for the new treatments and vaccines that are currently being fast-tracked.
As well as the immediate good they can do, Professor Piot hopes the volunteers will gain valuable experience for inevitable future Ebola outbreaks – and possibly also hit upon research opportunities.
“Academics can contribute to documenting what is going on because, in emergencies, others don’t have the time to assess what they are doing. We are better trained and it is our core business to evaluate and assess whether something works or not,” he said.
However, he admitted that, with its 2014 intake of students arriving, the school cannot afford to have large numbers of staff away for long periods. Hence, stints are typically limited to between four and six weeks.
Although the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine has taken a similarly proactive stance, Professor Piot admitted that “maybe there has been a general slowness in the [rest of the] sector to get involved” in the relief effort.
There is also an argument that Western researchers have done too little in the past 38 years to target Ebola; even Professor Piot himself quickly moved on to HIV research, judging it to be a much bigger threat to human health in Africa.
“I never ever expected that Ebola would become such a major issue,” he admitted. “Until this crisis, it had killed about 1,500 people – about 40 a year – and every outbreak was fairly rapidly contained. You can’t call that a public health problem.”
Changing research priorities
The other problem for Ebola researchers in the UK was that if they wanted to work with the live virus, they could do so only at the high-security (and very expensive to access) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. That remains the case, but now that the current epidemic has “changed everything” regarding research priorities, Professor Piot predicts much more research using the non-live virus.
“Understanding the social, behavioural and cultural aspects of transmission is also very important,” he added. “That really requires an effort from many different disciplines and we thrive on that in our school.”
Just as Aids was a “game-changer” in terms of putting global health on the map and inspiring pioneering ways to provide mass access to patented drugs, Professor Piot hopes the current Ebola epidemic will wake the world up to the threat posed even by outbreaks of tropical disease thousands of miles away. He also hopes that it will cement accelerated development of treatments and vaccines during outbreaks, even of rare tropical diseases.
“The only way to find out whether a vaccine or drug works is to test it out while the epidemic is there – although that has formidable logistic, ethical and methodological challenges,” he said.
Professor Piot is well placed to advise on such issues and is currently chairing the World Health Organisation committee responsible for the science of Ebola.
He acknowledged that his personal connection with Ebola contributed to the responsibility he felt to act, but he denied that his stance was “purely emotional”.
“If this had been another virus that I had nothing to do with, I would have reacted the same,” he said. “Higher education institutions are not only there to publish papers and teach. We also have a responsibility to society – locally, of course, but also worldwide, given that we are in a globalised world. For me, this is a no-brainer.”