"No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses." By Peter Piot. W.W. Norton & Co. $28.95. 387 pages.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Peter Piot's decision to specialize in infectious disease in the early 1970s came with a warning from one of his Belgian professors. According to one professor, that choice was career suicide. "There's no future in infectious diseases," the professor explained. "They've all been solved."
Unfortunately for the state of human health, that professor was absolutely wrong. If there can be a silver lining to an ill-considered prediction about the end of infectious disease, it's that fighting them became Piot's life work. And that work became the basis for a lively, absorbing memoir.
Dr. Piot's first encounter with a significant disease came in 1976 when he worked in an Antwerp laboratory. A mysterious disease had developed in the Congo, a former Belgian colony. The samples were sent to Antwerp, and the scenario to this day makes Piot "wince to think of it."
The blood samples were sent via passenger airplane and arrived in "a cheap plastic thermos flask, shiny and blue." The protective ice had melted, and one test tube broke in transport, mixing with the ice. Piot and his fellow lab workers wore only latex gloves, "no suits or masks of any kind." In another mishap, a professor leading the research dropped a test tube, splattering the contents onto a fellow worker's shoes.
So what was this newly discovered disease? It was Ebola, the highly contagious disease that inspired the 1995 hit movie "Outbreak."
"We didn't even imagine the risk we were taking," Piot recalls. "Indeed, shipping those blood samples in a simple thermos, without any kind of precautions, was an incredibly perilous act. Maybe the world was a simpler, more innocent place in those days, or maybe it was just a lot more reckless."
After discovering the disease in the lab, Piot raced to the Congo to work with the local population battling the disease -- and to keep Ebola from spreading to population centers.