This Congolese Doctor Discovered Ebola But Never Got Credit For It — Until Now : Goats and Soda Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe first confronted a mysterious, bloody disease in 1976. But credit for the discovery went to Belgian researchers.
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This Congolese Doctor Discovered Ebola But Never Got Credit For It — Until Now

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This Congolese Doctor Discovered Ebola But Never Got Credit For It — Until Now

This Congolese Doctor Discovered Ebola But Never Got Credit For It — Until Now

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So who discovered Ebola? Well, Google it, and you will get a collection of names, all of them white Westerners. What you won't find is the name Jean-Jacques Muyembe. He's a Congolese doctor. He now leads the response to the Ebola outbreak in his country. But back in 1976, he was the first to collect an Ebola sample. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from Kinshasa.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: According to Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the story actually starts in 1973. He had just gotten his Ph.D. at the Rega Institute in Belgium. He could have stayed in Europe, but he decided to come back to Congo.

JEAN-JACQUES MUYEMBE: But when I arrived here, the condition of work were not good. I had no lab. I have no mice for the experimentation, so it was very difficult to work here.

PERALTA: So instead of doing microbiology, he took a job as a field epidemiologist. And in 1976, he was called to an outbreak in central Congo. Lots of people had died of something that presented like yellow fever or malaria. Hearing that Dr. Muyembe had been sent by Kinshasa, people started arriving, hoping he had medicine for them.

MUYEMBE: I started to make the physical exam. But at that time, we have no gloves - in the whole hospital, no gloves.

PERALTA: And of course, he had to draw blood.

MUYEMBE: But when I removed the syringe - the needle - blood continued to spray out. Yes, it was the first time for me to see this phenomenon. And also, my fingers were soiled with blood.

PERALTA: He says he knew immediately this was something he'd never seen before. Some of the Belgian nuns in the village had been vaccinated against yellow fever and typhoid, and this disease was different. It was killing people fast. When he took liver samples with a long needle, the same thing would happen - blood would continue to gush. Muyembe says he washed his hands, but he was lucky that he didn't get Ebola.

He convinced one of the nuns who had the disease to fly with him to Kinshasa. He took blood samples before she died and sent them to Belgium, where they had an electron microscope to try to identify the culprit. Scientists there and in the United States saw this was a new virus that caused hemorrhagic fever. And they named it Ebola.

MUYEMBE: So as I told you, it is a consortium of research.

PERALTA: But a lot of the history of Ebola has been written without your name in it.

MUYEMBE: Yes. But, you know, that's - (laughter) - Yes, it is not correct. It is not correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

PERALTA: His door opens. These days, Muyembe is a busy man. The Canadian ambassador came calling. The CDC, the WHO - all want to talk to him about the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history. He's responsible for the response, so he says sorry, darts out the door and jumps into a pickup truck that will drive against traffic to get him to the health ministry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUMBLING)

PERALTA: The man who gets the bulk of the credit for discovering Ebola is Peter Piot. At the time, he was a young microbiologist at the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Belgium, and he received the blood samples sent by Dr. Muyembe. His book, "No Time To Lose," however, only mentions Dr. Muyembe in passing, as a bright scientist constantly pressuring Piot for more resources. I asked Piot if he feels responsible for writing Muyembe out of the history of Ebola.

PETER PIOT: I think that's a fair comment. But my book was not an attempt to write the history of Ebola and so on but more my personal experience. It's more biography in that sense.

PERALTA: Today, Piot is the director of the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says at the time, African scientists were simply excluded. White scientists with a colonial mentality parachuted in, took samples, wrote papers that were published in the West and took all the credit. But things, he says, are changing. Muyembe, for example, has received several international awards for pioneering the first effective treatment for Ebola.

PIOT: That reflects, I think, the power relations in global health and in science in general.

PERALTA: One more thing - Dr. Muyembe has made a decision many thought unthinkable even a few years ago. He decided all of the blood samples collected during this Ebola epidemic will stay in Congo, so anyone who wants to study this outbreak will have to come to his institute. American scientists who have led the way in studying Ebola have privately expressed frustrations. But Piot says the decision was obviously made because of how African scientists have been treated. And Western scientists, he says, should just get over it.

PIOT: We have to wake up to the - two things. One, the world has changed. And two, it's a matter of fairness.

PERALTA: Back in Muyembe's office, the thing that makes him smile is when we talk about the treatment he developed.

MUYEMBE: It is the most important achievement of my life.

PERALTA: Back in 1995, during another outbreak, he wondered if antibodies developed by Ebola survivors could be siphoned from their blood and used to treat new cases. So he injected Ebola patients with the blood of survivors.

MUYEMBE: We did eight patients, and seven survived.

PERALTA: The medical establishment wrote him off. He didn't have a control group, they told him. But Muyembe knew that in this village, Ebola was killing 81% of people. Just this year, that science became the foundation of what is now proven to be the first effective treatment against Ebola.

MUYEMBE: But if this idea was accepted by scientists, we'd save a lot of people, a lot of lives.

PERALTA: Ever since he came back to Congo, he has dreamed that big science could come out of his country. Just as he announced that samples would not leave Congo, he also got a commitment from Japan to build a state-of-the-art research facility right here. In the lab just a few feet from his office, scientists are using advanced machines to sequence the DNA of the Ebola samples. At 77, Muyembe says he doesn't regret coming back to Congo. And unlike when he came back in 1973, now he has equipment.

MUYEMBE: Yeah. Now I have mice here (laughter). I have mice here in the lab. So I have mice. I have the culture (ph). Everything is here now.

PERALTA: His biggest legacy, he says, won't be that he helped to discover Ebola or a cure for it. It'll be that if another young Congolese scientist finds himself with an interesting blood sample, he'll be able to investigate it right here in Congo.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kinshasa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBO K'S "TRANSITIONS")

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