The virus hunter infected by Covid. “I underestimated it, I was wrong”

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LONDON – The man who chased viruses throughout his life, from AIDS to Ebola, was eventually infected with the coronavirus. And his experience was terrible: “As if I ended up under a train. At the beginning, I underestimated it. I have never been seriously ill in my life, in the last ten years I have never taken a day of sickness, now is the first time that I haven’t had a glass of wine for a month. I thought Covid 19 was like Sars, by comparison very limited. Or as a flu. I was wrong, very big. “

To speak, to some newspapers like the New York Times and the Belgian magazine Knack in the last few days, it’s Dr. Peter Piot. Seventy-one years old, Belgian, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the pioneering scholars in the fight against AIDS and Ebola in Africa, Piot risked big because of Covid 19. Hospitalization, assisted breathing, the fact to have survived thanks to a favorable succession of events in a very serious clinical picture, despite his excellent health conditions. “This is the revenge of the viruses: so far I have made life difficult. This time it was Covid 19 that did the same for me.”

Piot’s story is exemplary for understanding why Covid 19 is not “like an influence” and why it should not be underestimated at all. “I don’t know where I got the coronavirus”, says the head of the United Nations Task Force “Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS” between 1995 and 2008 and today adviser to the European Commission of Ursula von der Leyen right on coronavirus: “I was in Singapore in January, then I led my usual life: meetings, seminars, dinners, aperitifs. But for many days, for example, I no longer gave my hand but only my elbow, as in the days of Ebola”.

Until March 19th. When Piot realizes that he has a fever, initially just below 38 degrees, and a severe headache: “Even my hair hurt, really strange. I had no cough, but I said to myself:” Hopefully it’s not Covid 19 “”. Instead it was, as shown by a test obtained by a private doctor. Then Piot self-isolates himself at home, in the guest room, away from his wife Heidi Larson, anthropologist and director of the “Vaccine Confidence Project” also from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

But things are getting worse. Fever rises to 40 degrees and oxygen begins to run low in his blood, although strangely he has no breathing difficulties. He goes to the hospital and Piot discovers that his lungs are in pieces: severe pneumonia typical of Covid 19, but also bacterial pneumonia: “I always have a thousand energies but I was destroyed. Totally emptied of any energy”. On April 1st he is hospitalized. Curiously, a new test is already negative: “But this is typical of Covid 19: the virus maybe disappears. But the consequences last a long time”. And they can be irreversible.


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Piot is hospitalized in a public hospital, in a room together with three other people: “When you enter a hospital in the United Kingdom due to the coronavirus in intensive care there is a 30% chance of failing it, at least according to statistics. The same was with Ebola in Africa in 2014. Many people believe that Covid 19 kills only 1% of patients and the rest of the people are having flu symptoms, “warns Piot,” but the story is far more complex. Many patients, even if they survive, will have irreversible kidney damage, or heart problems for the rest of their lives. The nervous system is also affected by the disease. All organs are at risk with Covid 19. The more time passes, the more we know this virus. That’s why I get angry with those commentators who, without knowing, criticize science. “

In the hospital, Piot risks a lot. The tests show a high inflammatory level in the body and possible embolism in the blood. He receives intravenous antibiotics and a lot of oxygen through a mask but is not intubated. Watch the tv series of “Montalbano” on BBC. The oxygen in the blood returns to 92%. He is discharged and returns home on April 8. But it’s not over. At this point, his immune system reacts excessively because he does not know what to do against this unprecedented threat, paradoxically another cause of death for Covid 19. The heart rate rises to 170 per minute: “I am still being treated for this “, explains the luminary to” Knack “,” through corticosteroids, to slow down the immune defense. If all this had happened during the emergence of the first symptoms, I would not have survived “.

“Without a vaccine,” concludes Piot, “we will never return to our normal lives. And it is not sure that we will have it.”

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