Baron Peter Piot CMG MD PhD is the Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the Handa Professor of Global Health. He was the founding Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations (1995-2008), and was an Associate Director of the Global Programme on AIDS of the World Health Organization. A clinician and microbiologist by training, he co-discovered the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1976, and subsequently led pioneering research on HIV/AIDS, women’s health and infectious diseases in Africa. He has held academic positions at institutions around the world and was a Senior Fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a member of the US National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Medicine of France, and the Royal Academy of Medicine of his native Belgium, and is a fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal College of Physicians. He is a past president of the International AIDS Society and of the King Baudouin Foundation. In 1995 he was made a baron by King Albert II of Belgium. Professor Piot has received numerous awards for his research and service and has published over 580 scientific articles and 16 books, including his memoir, “No Time to Lose”.
In his talk to Rhodes Scholars, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine alumni, and other medical academics in Oxford, Peter said it is important to define an epidemic in three terms: time, place and person. He described his discovery of the Ebola virus in 1976. After the outbreak of the mysterious illness in Zaire, Peter travelled to the centre of the outbreak to investigate. For Peter, the lessons learned during this outbreak were that poverty was driving the disease; good intentions can be dangerous; there is power and challenge in international collaboration; and anything can happen!
Peter said the Ebola Crisis in 2014 escalated more drastically than in Zaire due largely to the slow response time and unprepared health systems. New lessons learned from the crisis in 2014 included recognising the failure of global governance; the global impact of a local outbreak; finding new ways of doing research and development; and understanding that political, social and health system capacity and public trust are key to an effective response.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, Peter recognised there was no coordinated global response to the crisis and left research and clinical work to found UNAIDS. Peter described the AIDS epidemic as a game changer for public health as it disrupted the divide between prevention and treatment; initiated new forms of advocacy and activism; and it was the first time previously patented essential medicine costs were reduced.
In response to the audience’s question about the best approach to managing epidemics, Peter said it is important to act early, focus on prevention, and to invest in infrastructure and vaccines, quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.