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The Virus That Changes Lives

‘Finally, a virus got me.’ Scientist who fought Ebola and HIV reflects on facing death from COVID-19 – Science, May 8 2020, Dirk Draulans (translated from original article in the Belgian magazine Knack)

A Cautionary Tale For Covid Sceptics

“ON 19 MARCH, I SUDDENLY HAD A HIGH FEVER and a stabbing headache. My skull and hair felt very painful, which was bizarre. I didn’t have a cough at the time, but still, my first reflex was: I have it. I kept working—I’m a workaholic—but from home. We put a lot of effort into teleworking at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine last year, so that we didn’t have to travel as much. That investment, made in the context of the fight against global warming, is now very useful, of course.
I tested positive for COVID-19, as I suspected. I put myself in isolation in the guest room at home. But the fever didn’t go away. 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. But on 1 April, a doctor friend advised me to get a thorough examination because the fever and especially the exhaustion were getting worse and worse. It turned out I had severe oxygen deficiency, although I still wasn’t short of breath. 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.”

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Through the WI Lens

This is not the testimony of any ordinary victim of Covid-19, but that of virologist Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and one of the scientists who discovered Ebola back in 1976. He’s also headed the UN’s joint programme on HIV/AIDS for 13 years and is currently a coronavirus adviser to the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen.

Few, in other words, would be better equipped to understand the effects and the implications of Covid-19 infection, and you might have expected that few would be better prepared. And yet, as his story makes clear, and this was just the start of a battle that saw him “balanced between heaven and Earth”, nothing can really prepare you for a serious illness caused by the virus. Perhaps the most disturbing insight from Piot’s account is the acknowledgement that the virus “will change my life” coupled with the observation that hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, will survive their critical illness but be left with kidney, heart and neural problems, in some cases on dialysis for the rest of their lives. At a moment when countries around the world are easing out of lockdown, and facing pressure from many sides to more rapidly relax restrictions on personal freedom, it shows once again that the coronavirus threat cannot be underestimated – and we will have to negotiate a new way of living in the post-pandemic world.

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This is not the testimony of any ordinary victim of Covid-19, but that of virologist Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and one of the scientists who discovered Ebola back in 1976.

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