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Peter Piot

Peter Piot

Dennis Normile

Ebola discoverer sees progress in stemming outbreak

TOKYO—Peter Piot, a Belgian microbiologist who with others identified the Ebola virus in 1976, said here today that he is optimistic that the current outbreak might be coming under control. Piot, now at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, was in Tokyo to participate in a meeting of the board of directors of the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund. GHIT draws on funding from the Japanese government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and five Japanese pharmaceutical firms to support research into drugs for neglected tropical diseases. Ebola is not on GHIT's agenda. But questions about Ebola dominated a press conference here today. Edited excerpts from the Q&A with journalists follow:

Q: What are the implications of Ebola for China?

A: There are thousands of Chinese workers in Africa now. It is not impossible that one of them will [become infected with Ebola and] go to China. China is quite vulnerable. In public hospitals in China, the level of infection control is very poor. It has gotten better thanks to the experience with SARS. Another bit of good news is that until the SARS epidemic, China was not very open about epidemics. Today that is very different. So, there is good and bad news. But there is clearly a risk.

Q: What do you think of mass media coverage of Ebola?

A: When I look at reporting in the U.S., for example, the biggest epidemic is the epidemic of mass hysteria. I think the media are extremely important [in informing] the public. I've often said that journalists can save more lives than doctors, by giving the right information. But when I see that media reports are more about the dog of the nurse than about Ebola itself, that tells a story.

Q: Are there lessons to be learned from the SARS experience?

A: The big difference between SARS and Ebola is that SARS is airborne. That's why in the case of SARS, I would say that sitting in a plane with someone with SARS can be highly dangerous. Sitting next to someone with Ebola who is not ill is not a problem. It's scary, but on the rational side, it's not a problem.

Remember also that SARS started in China, went to Hong Kong, and then someone traveled to Toronto, the other side of the world, [and triggered] an outbreak. We're in a globalized world and we have to be prepared for this kind of incident. It's not possible to be totally risk-free. What we can do is be prepared, make sure there is infection control, education, and that there is innovation in vaccines and drugs.

Q: Is the Ebola situation improving?

A: It depends on the country. It seems that in Sierra Leone, the epidemic is still getting worse. But in Liberia, there are the first signs that in some parts of the country [infections are] going down. My optimistic scenario is that by Christmas, we will see a gradual decline everywhere.

The big problem with Ebola is that it is not over until the last person has died or recovered without having infected somebody. One person is enough to reignite an epidemic. This is very different from nearly all other infectious diseases.

*The Ebola Files: Given the current Ebola outbreak, unprecedented in terms of number of people killed and rapid geographic spread, Science and Science Translational Medicine have made a collection of research and news articles on the viral disease freely available to researchers and the general public.