News overview
Impact Story

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.

A mysterious disease emerging fast

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

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


Co-discovering Ebola

The World Health Organization (WHO) ordered ITM to send the blood samples to foreign labs with better security. The institute 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.’

Thus, the two ITM researchers were 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.

Spread the word! Share this story on

Related stories