'In 1976 I discovered Ebola, now I fear an unimaginable tragedy' | World news | The Observer
Was Right Here'
weird but what is the harm to undertake the proposed search and investigation of
the of all chemical research labs of all countries of the world including super
powers to find out the source of such a virus. One day the secret would be out
but then the time would be too late. Opinion is all pointing towards the
Zionist terrorist state are as its source of origin.
investigation would indicate whether or not it is actually is the originator of
this vicious devastating virus.
In 1976 I discovered Ebola, now I fear an unimaginable tragedy'
brought him a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had fallen mysteriously ill
Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘Around June it became clear to me there was
something different about this outbreak. I began to get really worried’
Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP
in Antwerp, you were part of the team that discovered the Ebola virus in 1976. How did it
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.
These days, Ebola may only be
researched in high-security laboratories. How did you protect yourself back
We had no idea how dangerous the virus was.
And there were no high-security labs in Belgium. We just wore our white lab
coats and protective gloves. 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.
But the yellow fever virus apparently
had nothing to do with the nun's illness.
No. And the 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. To do so, we injected it into mice
and other lab animals. At first nothing happened for several days. We thought
that perhaps the pathogen had been damaged from insufficient refrigeration in
the Thermos. But then one animal after the next began to die. We began to
realise that the sample contained something quite deadly.
But you continued?
Other samples from the nun, who had since
died, arrived from Kinshasa. 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. But
my boss at the time wanted to bring our work to conclusion no matter what. He
grabbed a vial containing virus material to examine it, but his hand was
shaking and he dropped it on a colleague's foot. The vial shattered. My only
thought was: "Oh, shit!" We immediately disinfected everything, and
luckily our colleague was wearing thick leather shoes. Nothing happened to any
In the end, you were finally able to
create an image of the virus using the electron microscope.
Yes, and our first thought was: "What
the hell is that?" 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. 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.
Were you afraid at that point?
I knew almost nothing about the Marburg virus
at the time. When I tell my students about it today, they think I must come
from the stone age. But I actually had to go the library and look it up in an
atlas of virology. It was the American Centres for Disease Control which
determined a short time later that it wasn't the Marburg virus, but a related, unknown
virus. We had also learned in the meantime that hundreds of people had already
succumbed to the virus in Yambuku and the area around it.
A few days later, you became one of
the first scientists to fly to Zaire.
Yes. The nun who had died and her fellow
sisters were all from Belgium. In Yambuku, which had been part of the Belgian
Congo, they operated a small mission hospital. When the Belgian government
decided to send someone, I volunteered immediately. I was 27 and felt a bit
like my childhood hero, Tintin. And, I have to admit, I was intoxicated by the
chance to track down something totally new.
Of course it was clear to us that we were
dealing with one of the deadliest infectious diseases the world had ever seen –
and we had no idea that it was transmitted via bodily fluids! It could also
have been mosquitoes. We wore protective suits and latex gloves and I even
borrowed a pair of motorcycle goggles to cover my eyes. But in the jungle heat
it was impossible to use the gas masks that we bought in Kinshasa. Even so, the
Ebola patients I treated were probably just as shocked by my appearance as they
were about their intense suffering. I took blood from around 10 of these
patients. I was most worried about accidentally poking myself with the needle
and infecting myself that way.
But you apparently managed to avoid
Well, at some point I did actually develop a
high fever, a headache and diarrhoea …
... similar to Ebola symptoms?
Exactly. I immediately thought: "Damn,
this is it!" But then I tried to keep my cool. I knew the symptoms I had
could be from something completely different and harmless. And it really would
have been stupid to spend two weeks in the horrible isolation tent that had
been set up for us scientists for the worst case. So I just stayed alone in my
room and waited. Of course, I didn't get a wink of sleep, but luckily I began
feeling better by the next day. It was just a gastrointestinal infection.
Actually, that is the best thing that can happen in your life: you look death
in the eye but survive. It changed my whole approach, my whole outlook on life
at the time.
You were also the one who gave the
virus its name. Why Ebola?
On that day our team sat together late into
the night – we had also had a couple of drinks – discussing the question. We
definitely didn't want to name the new pathogen "Yambuku virus",
because that would have stigmatised the place forever. There was a map hanging
on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest
river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola river. So by around three
or four in the morning we had found a name. But the map was small and inexact.
We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But
Ebola is a nice name, isn't it?
In the end, you discovered that the
Belgian nuns had unwittingly spread the virus. How did that happen?
In their hospital they regularly gave
pregnant women vitamin injections using unsterilised needles. By doing so, they
infected many young women in Yambuku with the virus. We told the nuns about the
terrible mistake they had made, but looking back I would say that we were much
too careful in our choice of words. Clinics that failed to observe this and
other rules of hygiene functioned as catalysts in all additional Ebola
outbreaks. They drastically sped up the spread of the virus or made the spread
possible in the first place. Even in the current Ebola outbreak in west Africa, hospitals unfortunately
played this ignominious role in the beginning.
After Yambuku, you spent the next 30
years of your professional life devoted to combating Aids. But now Ebola has
caught up to you again. American scientists fear that hundreds of thousands of
people could ultimately become infected. Was such an epidemic to be expected?
No, not at all. On the contrary, 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. Around June it
became clear to me that there was something fundamentally different about this
outbreak. At about the same time, the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières
sounded the alarm. We Flemish tend to be rather unemotional, but it was at that
point that I began to get really worried.
Why did WHO react so late?
On the one hand, it was because their African
regional office isn't staffed with the most capable people but with political
appointees. And the headquarters in Geneva suffered large budget cuts that had
been agreed to by member states. The department for haemorrhagic fever and the
one responsible for the management of epidemic emergencies were hit hard. But
since August WHO has regained a leadership role.
There is actually a well-established
procedure for curtailing Ebola outbreaks: isolating those infected and closely
monitoring those who had contact with them. How could a catastrophe such as the
one we are now seeing even happen?
I think it is what people call a perfect
storm: when every individual circumstance is a bit worse than normal and they
then combine to create a disaster. And with this epidemic there were many
factors that were disadvantageous from the very beginning. Some of the
countries involved were just emerging from terrible civil wars, many of their
doctors had fled and their healthcare systems had collapsed. In all of Liberia,
for example, there were only 51 doctors in 2010, and many of them have since
died of Ebola.
The fact that the outbreak began in
the densely populated border region between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia
… also contributed to the catastrophe.
Because the people there are extremely mobile, it was much more difficult than
usual to track down those who had had contact with the infected people. Because
the dead in this region are traditionally buried in the towns and villages they
were born in, there were highly contagious Ebola corpses travelling back and
forth across the borders in pickups and taxis. The result was that the epidemic
kept flaring up in different places.
For the first time in its history,
the virus also reached metropolises such as Monrovia and Freetown. Is that the
worst thing that can happen?
In large cities – particularly in chaotic
slums – it is virtually impossible to find those who had contact with patients,
no matter how great the effort. That is why I am so worried about Nigeria as well. The country is
home to mega-cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt, and if the Ebola virus lodges
there and begins to spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe.
Have we completely lost control of
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.
What can really be done in a
situation when anyone can become infected on the streets and, like in Monrovia,
even the taxis are contaminated?
We urgently need to come up with new
strategies. Currently, helpers are no longer able to care for all the patients
in treatment centres. So caregivers need to teach family members who are
providing care to patients how to protect themselves from infection to the
extent possible. This on-site educational work is currently the greatest
challenge. Sierra Leone experimented with a three-day curfew in an attempt to
at least flatten out the infection curve a bit. At first I thought: "That
is totally crazy." But now I wonder, "why not?" At least, as
long as these measures aren't imposed with military power.
A three-day curfew sounds a bit
Yes, it is rather medieval. But what can you
do? Even in 2014, we hardly have any way to combat this virus.
Do you think we might be facing the
beginnings of a pandemic?
There will certainly be Ebola patients from
Africa who come to us in the hopes of receiving treatment. And they might even
infect a few people here who may then die. But an outbreak in Europe or North
America would quickly be brought under control. I am more worried about the
many people from India who work in trade or industry in west Africa. It would
only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives
during the virus's incubation period, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a
public hospital there. Doctors and nurses in India, too, often don't wear protective
gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.
The virus is continually changing its
genetic makeup. The more people who become infected, the greater the chance
becomes that it will mutate ...
... which might speed its spread. Yes, that
really is the apocalyptic scenario. Humans are actually just an accidental host
for the virus, and not a good one. From the perspective of a virus, it isn't
desirable for its host, within which the pathogen hopes to multiply, to die so
quickly. It would be much better for the virus to allow us to stay alive
Could the virus suddenly change
itself such that it could be spread through the air?
Like measles, you mean? Luckily that is
extremely unlikely. But a mutation that would allow Ebola patients to live a
couple of weeks longer is certainly possible and would be advantageous for the
virus. But that would allow Ebola patients to infect many, many more people
than is currently the case.
But that is just speculation, isn't
Certainly. But it is just one of many
possible ways the virus could change to spread itself more easily. And it is
clear that the virus is mutating.
You and two colleagues wrote a piece
for the Wall Street
Journal supporting the
testing of experimental drugs. Do you think that could be the solution?
Patients could probably be treated most
quickly with blood serum from Ebola survivors, even if that would likely be
extremely difficult given the chaotic local conditions. We need to find out now
if these methods, or if experimental drugs like ZMapp, really help. But we
should definitely not rely entirely on new treatments. For most people, they
will come too late in this epidemic. But if they help, they should be made available
for the next outbreak.
Testing of two vaccines is also
beginning. It will take a while, of course, but could it be that only a vaccine
can stop the epidemic?
I hope that's not the case. But who knows?
In Zaire during that first outbreak,
a hospital with poor hygiene was responsible for spreading the illness. Today
almost the same thing is happening. Was Louis Pasteur right when he said:
"It is the microbes who will have the last word"?
Of course, we are a long way away from
declaring victory over bacteria and viruses. HIV is still here; in London
alone, five gay men become infected daily. An increasing number of bacteria are
becoming resistant to antibiotics. And I can still see the Ebola patients in
Yambuku, how they died in their shacks and we couldn't do anything except let
them die. In principle, it's still the same today. That is very depressing. But
it also provides me with a strong motivation to do something. I love life. That
is why I am doing everything I can to convince the powerful in this world to
finally send sufficient help to West Africa. Now!
apprehended. Now it is time to start investigation and find out how far the
researcher advance to find out the remedy to destroy it or left it as undone
job without taking any action. further who all knew of it and if those who knew
of it have used it to harm those in lieu of financial transaction with international
terrorists inclusive of the terrorists of Israel state.
It definitely needs immediate action to
pursue the matter without any lose of time and follow it to end the terrorists
devastating venture to cause colossal harm to the human beings and may be sealed
permanently for human beings livelihood in those country that are affected with
the EBOLA decease.
The rest I leave up to the authorities to be
responsible to be concerned for the world welfare, safety and security to take
action apart from its own country's welfare and safety and security.