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Peter Piot, the scientist who helped discover the Ebola virus, and the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has told of his brush with death after contracting Covid-19.
The professor had never previously been seriously ill, but after 40 years studying and leading the global response to infectious diseases including HIV and Aids, he said that “finally, a virus got me”.
Piot, who was awarded an honorary knighthood for services to science in 2017, is still recovering from the virus after severe pneumonia left him hospitalised.
Professional expertise and personal experience give him an extraordinary insight into the potential impact of the virus on public health, predicting many people will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems.
But he hopes the crisis might ease political tensions over vaccines and force anti-vaccine campaigners to re-evaluate their positions, as well as lead to reform of the World Health Organization (WHO).
In his first interview since contracting the virus, the professor said he started to display symptoms on 19 March when he developed a high fever and a sharp headache.
He had other symptoms, not then linked to coronavirus. “My skull and hair felt very painful, which was bizarre,” he said in an interview with the Belgian magazine Knack, a version of which was published in English in Science magazine.
He did not have a cough at the time but his instinct told him it was coronavirus. He thought it would pass and he continued to work as a special adviser to the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
To be hospitalised by a virus after four decades avoiding the infectious diseases he studies was not something he expected.
“I have devoted my life to fighting viruses and finally, they get their revenge. For a week I balanced between heaven and earth, on the edge of what could have been the end,” he said.
“I had never been seriously ill and have not taken a day of sick leave the past 10 years. I live a pretty healthy life and walk regularly. The only risk factor for corona is my age – I’m 71. I’m an optimist, so I thought it would pass.”
Piot was one of the leading critics of the UK, UN and WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, which he called “too slow”.
“I’m glad I had corona and not Ebola,” he told the magazine, “although I read a scientific study yesterday that concluded you have a 30% chance of dying if you end up in a British hospital with Covid-19. That’s about the same overall mortality rate as for Ebola in 2014 in west Africa.”
After two weeks of self-isolating, Piot ended up in hospital.
The professor had perilously low oxygen levels, a phenomenon of coronavirus in which patients present with no breathlessness or distress but have oxygen saturation scores low enough to typically cause unconsciousness.
“Lung images showed I had severe pneumonia, typical of Covid-19, as well as bacterial pneumonia. I constantly felt exhausted, while normally I’m always buzzing with energy. It wasn’t just fatigue, but complete exhaustion; I’ll never forget that feeling. I had to be hospitalised, although I tested negative for the virus in the meantime. This is also typical for Covid-19: the virus disappears, but its consequences linger for weeks,” he said.
“I was concerned I would be put on a ventilator immediately because I had seen publications showing it increases your chance of dying. I was pretty scared, but fortunately, they just gave me an oxygen mask first and that turned out to work. So, I ended up in an isolation room in the antechamber of the intensive care department.
“I shared a room with a homeless person, a Colombian cleaner, and a man from Bangladesh – all three diabetics, incidentally, which is consistent with the known picture of the disease. The days and nights were lonely because no one had the energy to talk. I could only whisper for weeks; even now, my voice loses power in the evening. But I always had that question going around in my head: how will I be when I get out of this?”
He was released after a week but was back in hospital days later.
He had an “organising pneumonia-induced lung disease, caused by a so-called cytokine storm”. He added: “It’s a result of your immune defence going into overdrive.”
Piot is still recovering and warns that the more we learn about the virus, the more questions arise. “There will be hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, possibly more, who will need treatments such as renal dialysis for the rest of their lives,” he predicted.
“We are learning while we are sailing. That’s why I get so annoyed by the many commentators on the sidelines who, without much insight, criticise the scientists and policymakers trying hard to get the epidemic under control. That’s very unfair.”
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