Peter Piot, the Belgian virologist who helped discover the Ebola virus, has been describing his very personal brush with the new coronavirus SARS-Cov-2.
Piot (photo) now heads the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and it was in the United Kingdom that he contracted the Covid-19 infection.
“On March 19, I suddenly had a high fever and a stabbing headache,” he told Knack magazine. “It was bizarre that my skull and hair felt very painful. I did not have to cough at the time, but my first reflex was still: I have it. I kept working – I’m a workaholic – but from home.”
At that time it was still not possible to be tested on the National Health Service (NHS) so he turned to a private hospital, and the test proved positive. At home, he went into isolation in the spare room.
“But the fever didn’t go away. I had never been seriously ill and have not had a day of sick leave in the past ten years. I live quite a healthy life and run regularly. The only risk factor for corona is my age – I am 71.”
A doctor friend advised further testing, and a chest X-ray revealed a serious lung infection causing severe shortage of breath and exhaustion.
His fear was that he would be placed on a ventilator, which appears to increase the likelihood of succumbing to the disease.
“I was scared, but luckily I first got an oxygen mask and that turned out to work. I ended up in an isolation room at the entrance to intensive care. You feel tired, so you rest. You completely surrender to nursing. You live in a routine from syringe to infusion and hope you make it. I am usually quite proactive in my behaviour, but here I was 100% patient.”
Despite a lifetime of working to combat viruses and viral infections across the world – principally Ebola and Aids but also SARS and MERS – the experience of being a patient was a new one.
“You sometimes lose scientific level-headedness and surrender to emotional reflections. They got me, I thought sometimes. I have devoted my life to fighting viruses and finally they get their revenge. For a week I wavered between heaven and earth, on the edge of what could have been the end.”
Now recovering from a second lung infection which can be treated as an out-patient, his first plan is to go back to work as an advisor to EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
“The Commission is strongly committed to developing a vaccine. Let us be clear: without a corona vaccine we will never be able to live normally again. The only real exit strategy from this crisis is a vaccine that can be rolled out worldwide. Despite all our efforts, it is still not certain that it will be possible to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. In the worst case, we will be able to do nothing but try to limit the damage.”