The Virus Hunter

Published in: November-December 2012 issue.


No Time to Lose by Peter PiotNo Time to Lose
by Peter Piot
Norton.  304 pages, $28.95


RIGHT from the opening pages, No Time to Lose immerses readers in excitement of the sort one might find in a Hemingway or Burroughs novel. But the excitement lies not in a fictional tale but in the discovery of deadly viruses in Africa at a time of human catastrophes and scientific breakthroughs. Peter Piot is a microbiologist who co-discovered the Ebola virus, in Zaire, in 1976. And when a mysterious, deadly virus emerged in the 1980’s, Piot was on the French team that discovered the origins of HIV in Africa and laid the groundwork for understanding how the virus spreads. Piot would later become under-secretary-general of the UN and is currently the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

A Belgian who finished his medical studies at the University of Ghent in 1974, Piot was an unexpected choice to join a small team that was sent to Zaire in search of the deadly virus that turned out to be Ebola. After his work in Africa ended, Piot volunteered to go to Swaziland to work with a colleague assigned to eliminate sexually transmitted disease there. The endeavor was, of course, ill-fated, but it led him to an interest in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in Africa, and work with STD patients in Antwerp. In Belgium and elsewhere, an alarming set of symptoms was just starting to appear in the city’s gay population, including some gay men who were coming to Piot’s clinic. Related symptoms were also showing up in Africa, appearing with terrible frequency among the sex trade industry and its customers. The disease seemed to be a new syndrome, and it appeared to be spreading. It was Piot’s team that recognized that the virus in Africa was the same one that was infecting gay men (and some others) in Europe and North America.

In this memoir, Piot does such a thorough job in describing what he saw in Africa—the villages, the jungles, the people, the smells, and the sounds—that you can almost hear the monkeys and bird calls as you’re reading, and also experience the sense of danger that he experienced when confronting the unknown. But Piot’s story is not meant for entertainment or theatricals. His dedication to finding the source of these viruses and to their eventual eradication was such that he even imperiled his family life. But for all these efforts, he repeatedly expresses regret that he didn’t do enough, soon enough.

Looking through this backward lens, however, readers will wonder why Piot questions himself so harshly. He writes of relentlessly fighting bureaucracy and politics, struggling to set up the organizations needed to study and prevent further infection, and having to combat local beliefs and stigmas about disease. All of this makes for a triumphant story of accomplishment in the face of long odds. Still, Piot includes a coda filled with anguished sadness for a job that he sees as woefully unfinished.