Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe says his story 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 return to Congo, or what was then known as Zaire, which had only recently attained independence from Belgium.
If he had stayed in Belgium, he says, he would have been doing routine lab work. But in Congo, he would be responsible for the “health of my people.”
“But when I arrived here the conditions of work were not good,” he says. “I had no lab; I had no mice for the experimentation, so it was very difficult to work here.”
Being a microbiologist without mice or a lab was useless, so he took a job as a field epidemiologist. In 1976, he was called to an outbreak of a mysterious disease in central Congo.
Lots of people had died of something that presented like yellow fever, typhoid or malaria. Muyembe arrived to a nearly empty hospital. He says people thought the infection was coming from the hospital, and he found only a mother and her baby.
Muyembe says his biggest legacy won’t be discovering Ebola. It will be that in the future, another young Congolese researcher could be able to do more of their work in their home country, rather than relying on peers in the U.S. or Europe.
“I thought that it was malaria or something like this,” he says. “But in the night the baby died, so the hospital was completely empty.”
By morning, as the people of Yambuku heard Muyembe had been sent by the central government in Kinshasa, they started lining up at the hospital hoping he had medicine for them.
“I started to make physical exam,” he says. “But at that time we had no gloves in the whole hospital.”
And, of course, he had to draw blood, but when he removed the syringes, the puncture would gush blood.
“It was the first time for me to see this phenomenon,” he says. “And also my fingers were soiled with blood.”
Muyembe says he washed his hands, but it was really luck that kept him from contracting an infection. 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, but 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.
He persuaded 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.
They named it Ebola, after a river near the village.
The discovery, says Muyembe, was thanks to a “consortium of research.”
But Google “Who discovered Ebola?” and you get a bunch of names — all of them white Western males. Dr. Jean Jacques Muyembe has been written out of history.
“Yes, but it is …” he pauses. He takes a breath and laughs, looking for the right way to respond.
“Yes. It is not correct,” he says. “It is not correct.”
The man who gets the bulk of the credit for discovering Ebola is Dr. Peter Piot. At the time, he was a young microbiologist at the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Belgium. He was the one to receive the blood samples sent by Muyembe.
He describes his experience in No Time to Lose, a book about his professional life, including his vast work on HIV.
But Ebola was his big break. In the book, he describes how vials of blood had arrived in melting ice, some of them broken.
He describes how the World Health Organization ordered them to give up the samples, to send them to England and eventually the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, which was one of the only labs equipped to handle a deadly virus like Ebola.
He describes how angry that made him and Dr. Stefaan Pattyn, the man running the lab at the time, who died in 2008.
“[Pattyn] claimed that we needed a few more days to ready it for transport,” Piot wrote. “So we kept a few tubes of VERO cells, as well as some of the newborn mice, which were dying. Perhaps it was a stubborn rebellion against the whole Belgian history of constantly being forced to grovel to a greater power. That material was just too valuable, too glorious to let it go.”
Almost simultaneously, scientists at the CDC and Piot looked at the samples under an electron microscope and saw a snakelike filament — huge in comparison to other viruses and very similar to the Marburg virus. The CDC, which kept the world’s reference lab for hemorrhagic viruses, confirmed this was something new. This was Ebola.
Joel Lamika, who runs an Ebola smartphone app at the institute, says many foreign governments want to stamp their flags on the work Congolese have done.
“They want to claim like it’s theirs,” he says. “But it is theft.”
Lamika says perhaps one good thing that has come out of this latest Ebola outbreak is that it is giving the world a chance to rewrite history.
Muyembe, he says, is a national hero. His picture is on a huge banner in front of this institute. During previous Ebola outbreaks, and especially the huge one in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the the scientific community used Muyembe as an example of someone who had gotten it right. Under his leadership, Congo had managed to quickly quell nine previous outbreaks.
Maybe this outbreak, he says, will give the world an opportunity to know who Muyembe is.
“It’s time for the world to learn that Ebola was discovered by a Congolese,” he said. “By Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe.”
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