Interview with Ebola Discoverer Peter Piot: ‘It Is What People Call a Perfect Storm’

SPIEGEL: For the first time in its history, the virus also reached metropolises like Monrovia and Freetown. Is that the worst thing that can happen?
Piot: 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.

SPIEGEL: Have we completely lost control of the epidemic?

Piot: 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 anymore. This is a humanitarian catastrophe…

SPIEGEL: 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?

Piot: We urgently need to come up with new strategies. Currently, helpers are no longer able to care for all the patients in treatment centers. 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.

SPIEGEL: A three-day curfew sounds a bit desperate.

Piot: Yes, it is rather medieval. But what can you do? Even in 2014, we hardly have any way to combat this virus.

SPIEGEL: Do you think we might be facing the beginnings of a pandemic?

Piot: 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’ 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…