The discovery of and research on the ebola virus

ITM researchers Guido van der Groen and Peter Piot co-discovered the Ebola virus, which was first studied in Zaire in 1976.

Van der Groen, Piot and their boss, Prof. Pattyn (1976)
Van der Groen, Piot and their boss, Prof. Pattyn (1976)

Congolese virologist Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe worked as a field epidemiologist when he was called to the village of Yambuku in northern Zaire. An outbreak of a mysterious illness had just happened. Lots of people had died of a disease that presented like yellow fever, typhoid or malaria, but this was something different: it was killing people fast.

He took a sample from a sick nun with his bare hands, and it was only luck that kept him from contracting an infection.

On 29 September 1976, a Sabena Airlines pilot landed in Antwerp to deliver a thermos bottle from Zaire. In this bottle, young ITM researchers Guido van der Groen and Peter Piot encountered the blood samples of a Flemish missionary who had contracted an unknown illness which had already caused dozens of fatalities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) ordered ITM to send the blood samples to foreign labs with better security. But ITM kept some of the research material and continued its investigation.

Three days later, WHO sent out the following telex: ‘On 14 October 1976, ITM, the Porton Down (UK) lab and the Centers for Disease Control (US) simultaneously isolated a virus that is morphologically related to the Marburg virus but is immunologically different.’

The two ITM researchers were thus the co-discoverers of the virus, which was later named ‘Ebola’ after a river close to Yambuku. They travelled to Zaire to study the epidemic.

The spaghetti-form Ebola virus under the electron microscope
The spaghetti-form Ebola virus under the electron microscope

ITM made a name for itself during subsequent epidemics as well. For example, Dr Bob Colebunders helped combat the Ebola outbreak of 1995 in Kikwit (Zaire). During the unseen monster epidemic in West Africa (2014-2015), Prof. Johan Van Griensven coordinated a large-scale European research project on the treatment of Ebola, Prof. Kevin Ariën (head of virology) ensured that the illness could be diagnosed in Antwerp, and ITM internist Erika Vlieghe acted as the national Ebola coordinator.