Peter Piot

No time to lose

A life in pursuit of deadly viruses


The story begins in a laboratory in Belgium in 1976, where the newly qualified Dr Piot and his colleagues receive mysterious blood samples from victims of a lethal new disease in the equatorial forest of Zaire.

Having identified a new virus later named Ebola, Piot is dispatched to the quarantine zone to track the outbreak to its source and discover its transmission mechanisms. Living and working among dying villagers and terrified missionaries deep in the rainforest, Piot repeatedly risked his life to collect blood samples and understand the spread of the Ebola epidemic. Back in Europe, he set out to work with vulnerable communities from Antwerp to Nairobi. As one of the few researchers in sexually-transmitted diseases with knowledge of Africa, he was among the first to understand and respond to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic there.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, millions suffered and died. Piot and his co-workers struggled against official denial and corruption to prevent new infections, care for patients, set up clean blood banks and pull together the first international AIDS research initiatives. Piot offers a harrowing account of how the epidemic ravaged Africa, and how he tackled the near-impossible task as director of the fledgling agency UNAIDS.

Piot worked tirelessly to engage with AIDS groups and activists, win over world leaders including Mandela, Castro and Kofi Annan, and persuade the pharmaceutical industry to bring down the price of life-saving medicines. Over a few hectic years, he succeeded in mobilising billions of dollars in funding and co-ordinated political support for effective medical and social action to limit the pandemic and save uncounted lives.

Yet millions more died needlessly, and are still dying today. Throughout this book, Piot raises urgent questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human in today's globalised world. Have we learned our lessons? Will we act to control the next pandemic or will ignorance and inertia prevail? And with AIDS again on the rise among vulnerable populations, how can we ensure that governments continue to take effective action?

It was my dream: I was
going to the heart of Africa
– Zaire – to explore the
outbreak of a new virus.

Full of poignant and moving detail, this memoir reveals one of the greatest untold stories of our age. It captures the urgency and excitement of working at the forefront of the effort against the deadly forces of disease, dictatorship and denial, and will inspire anyone who wants to make a difference in the world.

I recalled the nightmare that had haunted us in 1976: that Ebola would hit Kinshasa. Now I was back, and this new epidemic had hit Kinshasa. And given everything I knew, or thought I knew, this was going to be a lot more fatal than Ebola. AIDS was largely invisible, and I knew that meant it might be uncontrollable. Ebola was just the overture. This time, I knew, we were looking at the worst epidemic I could imagine, the greatest assailant I would ever face, something that would absorb all the energy that I could throw at it, and far more. In my mother tongue, Dutch I wrote in my notebook: ?Incredible. A catastrophe for Africa. This is what I want to work on. It will change everything.
Peter Piot