The Congolese Doctor Who Discovered Ebola : Short Wave Jean-Jacques Muyembe is a Congolese doctor heading up the response to the current Ebola outbreak in Congo. Back in 1976, he was the first doctor to collect a sample of the virus. But his crucial role in discovering Ebola is often overlooked. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta helps us correct the record. Follow Eyder on Twitter — he's @eyderp and Maddie's @maddie_sofia. You can always reach the show by emailing shortwave@npr.org.

The Congolese Doctor Who Discovered Ebola

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...from NPR. Maddie Sofia here with none other than NPR East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. Hey there, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Maddie.

SOFIA: Thank you so much for talking to us all the way from Kenya. I know there's, like, an eight-hour time difference.

PERALTA: I am thrilled (laughter).

SOFIA: (Laughter).

PERALTA: But I want to open with a quick question. Who discovered Ebola? And do not Google it.

SOFIA: (Laughter) OK, first of all, how dare you ask me a question I should definitely know the answer to and don't? And yeah, I already Googled it, and what came up was Peter Piot, a Belgian microbiologist. But I think you're about to tell me there's more to this story there.

PERALTA: Absolutely. There always is, right? So, I mean, you cheated.

SOFIA: Yeah.

PERALTA: And what you probably saw is a bunch of white Westerners like Piot. Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe does not.

SOFIA: Yeah. He was not one of the people that came up.

PERALTA: Yeah. So he's a Congolese doctor, and today, he's doing really important work heading up the response to the current Ebola outbreak in Congo. But back in 1976, Muyembe - he was the first doctor to collect an Ebola sample.

SOFIA: Wow.

PERALTA: And his crucial role in discovering Ebola is often just a footnote.

A lot of the history of Ebola has been written without your name in it.

JEAN-JACQUES MUYEMBE: Yes. But, you know, this (laughter) yes. It is not correct. It is not correct.

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SOFIA: So today on the show - correcting the record on Ebola, the story of Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe.

PERALTA: And what he's doing now to ensure African scientists are part of writing its future. To some in the medical community, it's a controversial move.

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SOFIA: OK, Eyder, so we're talking about a Congolese doctor, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, and his role in discovering Ebola. When do we begin?

PERALTA: So when I sat down with him at his office in Kinshasa, he said we should start in 1973. Muyembe had just gotten his PhD in microbiology at the Rega Institute in Belgium, and he could have stayed in Europe, but he decided to come back to Congo.

MUYEMBE: But when I arrive here, the condition of work were not good. I had no lab. I have no mice for experimentation. So it was very difficult to work here.

SOFIA: Yeah. It's tough to do lab work without a lab, you know?

PERALTA: Yeah, exactly. He said, without a library, too. Instead, he took a job as a field epidemiologist. And just a couple of years later, in 1976, Muyembe was sent from Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, to the village of Yambuku to investigate a mysterious outbreak.

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PERALTA: It's the first recorded outbreak of Ebola, but no one knew that at the time. They thought maybe it was typhoid or yellow fever. And he goes to this local hospital, and he says he finds it completely empty.

SOFIA: Whoa. Why was nobody there?

PERALTA: Local residents thought the hospital was the source of the infection and people had died there. But in the morning, when they heard Muyembe was sent from the capital, they thought he had medicine. So they started to come back to the hospital, and Muyembe started seeing patients.

SOFIA: So what's he seeing when the patients come in?

PERALTA: He was seeing people who were very weak.

MUYEMBE: With fever...

PERALTA: They had headaches.

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

SOFIA: Oof (ph).

MUYEMBE: ...No gloves.

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

MUYEMBE: But when I removed the syringe, blood continued to spread out. It was the first time for me to see this phenomenon - and also my finger where I saw it with the blood.

SOFIA: Oof, wow.

PERALTA: Yeah. So he says he would wash his hands a lot, but really, he says, it was just luck that he didn't catch Ebola.

SOFIA: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that's - it's, like, amazing that he's in there, and there's no gloves, and there's patients, and they don't really know what's going on, and he was able to not get it.

PERALTA: And at this point, Muyembe, he was startled. But then three nurses died that night, and a Belgian nun who was working in the village also got sick with a fever. All the nuns had been vaccinated against typhoid and yellow fever.

SOFIA: So at this point, Muyembe was like, oh, it's probably not those things.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, in the severity, too - the deaths with this outbreak. He started to realize that this was something different. So he convinced one nun to go back to Kinshasa with him.

SOFIA: So what happens next?

PERALTA: She died at a hospital...

SOFIA: Jeez.

PERALTA: ...A couple of days later. But he took blood samples, and he sent them to Belgium for testing. And the guy on the other end, that was Peter Piot, who at the time was with the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Belgium.

SOFIA: The guy who turned up from my Google search.

PERALTA: Yeah, that's right. And so he and other scientists start working to identify the culprit. The CDC in the U.S. gets involved. And they realize this is a new virus that caused hemorrhagic fever.

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PERALTA: They call it Ebola. They name it after a river by the village where it was discovered.

SOFIA: So what Muyembe saw out in the field - the blood samples he got - all of this plays a crucial role in the history of Ebola, right?

PERALTA: It was huge. But it's Piot who gets the bulk of the credit for discovering Ebola, and you can tell that this bothers Jean-Jacques Muyembe.

MUYEMBE: If you don't recognize the work done in the field, it is not correct. It is a team, you know? It is a team.

PERALTA: Piot actually wrote a memoir, "No Time To Lose." And he does mention Muyembe but just in passing as a bright scientist who's constantly pestering him for more resources.

SOFIA: Has Piot talked about this?

PERALTA: Well...

SIRI: Peter Piot, FaceTime Video.

PETER PIOT: Hello?

PERALTA: So I got Piot on the phone.

PIOT: Here we go.

PERALTA: He's now the director of the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And I asked him if he felt at all responsible for writing Muyembe out of his history of Ebola.

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 a biography, in that sense.

SOFIA: Was this kind of, like, an awkward conversation to have, Eyder?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, especially because he's Belgian. And...

SOFIA: Right.

PERALTA: ...Belgium was the colonial power in Congo. I mean, ultimately, you know, he looks at it with a little bit of distance. He says that, at the time, African scientists - they were simply excluded. And white scientists parachuted in, they took samples, wrote papers that were published in the West, and they took all the credit.

SOFIA: He - so he actually said that.

PERALTA: He did. And, I mean - and that actually surprised me. And I think part of the reason I feel that he's so comfortable talking about this is because he's in an academic setting. I think, you know, in universities across the world, students are talking about privilege. So he seems like he is very comfortable having this conversation right now.

SOFIA: Wow. I mean, there's something very weird kind of about that coming from him - right? - as a person who has admitted to taking part in exploitative science.

PERALTA: Absolutely. And, you know, one of the good things is that he says that things are changing. Muyembe, for example, has received several international awards just recently for pioneering the first effective treatment for Ebola.

MUYEMBE: So that reflects, I think, the - to say the power relations in global health and in science in general.

SOFIA: So - OK, I want to ask you about the treatment in a minute. But to put it, like, very bluntly, have there actually been any concrete steps to try to change this power dynamic in the global health field? Because this is certainly not one of, you know, two stories. This is one of many, many stories.

PERALTA: There is. I mean, look, Muyembe has made a decision that many thought unthinkable even just a few years ago. He decided that all of the blood samples collected during this most recent Ebola epidemic will stay in Congo. So if anyone wants to study this outbreak, they will have to come to his institute.

SOFIA: I bet that has ruffled some feathers, though.

PERALTA: I have - I've heard from some American scientists who have privately expressed frustrations, and they are really the ones who have led the way in studying Ebola. But Piot understands that decision when you think about how African scientists have been historically treated. And he says that Western scientists should just get over it.

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

SOFIA: It's so weird to hear him say, a matter of fairness, Eyder.

PERALTA: A matter of fairness.

SOFIA: OK. So before we move on, tell me about the treatment that Muyembe worked on.

PERALTA: So this is the thing that makes him smile, right? Muyembe calls it the most important achievement of his life. And it goes back to 1995 during another Ebola outbreak in Congo.

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PERALTA: Eighty-one percent of people infected with Ebola in this village were dying.

SOFIA: Wow.

PERALTA: And he wondered if antibodies developed by Ebola survivors could be siphoned from their blood and used to treat new cases. So he gave sick patients transfusions of blood from Ebola survivors.

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PERALTA: So he injected Ebola patients with the blood of survivors.

MUYEMBE: Eight patient, and seven survive.

PERALTA: He says the medical establishment wrote him off because he didn't have a control group. That's what they told him.

MUYEMBE: But if this idea was accepted by scientists, yeah - we save a lot of life.

SOFIA: OK. I mean, to be fair, that is a really small group with no control, among some other stuff, right?

PERALTA: Yeah.

SOFIA: But on the other hand, it doesn't mean that he was wrong, you know, that it should be totally dismissed. And maybe if more scientists looked into it, collaborated with him, maybe tried to replicate that data in some way, they could have learned something with him, right? Because we now know that he was, in fact, correct about the antibodies.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, that's right. And the context is important because I think what really eats at him is that maybe lots and lots of people could have been saved during the West Africa outbreak, which happened from 2013 to 2016. And look, just this year, that science became the foundation of what is now proven to be the first effective treatment against Ebola that is saving 70% of the people who are treated with it.

SOFIA: Amazing. Is he getting credit for that at this point?

PERALTA: He is. Yeah. Absolutely.

SOFIA: OK. So how does Muyembe look back on all of this? Like, what's his view on this?

PERALTA: So he's 77, so he's obviously thinking about his legacy.

SOFIA: Sure.

PERALTA: And, you know, one of the things that he told me is that he's always dreamed that big science could come out of Congo. And partly because of him, that's more likely to happen. He got a commitment from Japan to build a state-of-the-art research facility in Kinshasa. And in the lab just a few feet from his office, where we talked, scientists were using advanced machines to sequence the DNA of the Ebola samples that have to stay here in Congo.

SOFIA: OK. So Muyembe, doctor and scientist who started in the Congo with no lab, has a lab and is soon getting an even better one to do his work.

PERALTA: Yeah. Exactly.

MUYEMBE: Yeah. Now I have mice here (laughter). I have mice here in the lab. So I have mice. I have subculture.

SOFIA: A good subculture will bring joy to your life.

PERALTA: Yeah. But he also has mice, right? What's a microbiologist without mice?

SOFIA: I ask myself that every day, Eyder.

PERALTA: (Laughter) And so, you know, what he says is that his biggest legacy won't be that he helped to discover Ebola or a cure for it. It'll be if another young Congolese scientist finds himself with an interesting blood sample, he'll be able to investigate it right there in Congo.

SOFIA: Eyder, thank you for this.

PERALTA: Thank you, Maddie.

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SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. Our engineering queen today was Natasha Branch. Thanks, Natasha. You've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. We'll see you tomorrow.

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