When Dr. Peter Piot was a young scientist, in 1976, he received a shiny, blue thermos in his Antwerp lab. It was filled with the blood of a Belgium nun who worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). The woman had fallen ill with a mysterious sickness, and Piot was asked to screen the blood for yellow fever.
Just before his discovery, Piot's professors told him that he had no future in infectious diseases. Back then, many people believed that science had solved the problems viruses created in humans with new vaccines and antivirals. Then came Ebola — a disease for which we still have no cure — and later HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.
Piot is now one of the world's foremost infectious diseases experts, and a former under-secretary general of the United Nations. He's been watching the world's largest-ever epidemic unfold from his post in London, and we spoke with him about his thoughts on the outbreak and how the global community can prevent future tragedies of this scale. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.