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Renowned microbiologist Peter Piot, MD

Famous microbiologist experiences ‘revenge of the viruses’

Famous virus hunter Peter Piot, MD, PhD, recounts his firsthand battle with COVID-19, and the second wave of chronic symptoms that left him ill for months.

When I interviewed famed virus hunter Peter Piot, MD, PhD, about his recovery from a severe case of COVID-19, he said he was about 95% better and even able to go for a short jog that morning near his home in the United Kingdom -- something that for weeks had been "unthinkable."

That was four months after he was diagnosed with the virus that he thought might kill him.

"I am double motivated to fight this virus, that's for sure," said Piot, 72, after telling me a harrowing tale of first battling the virus from an isolation ward at the Royal London Hospital, then being felled a second time when his body's immune system went into hyper-drive.

In an article in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, I tell the story of his personal battle with COVID-19 and how the experience has helped shape his mission for the future. As he said in the story: "It's really touched me personally how invasive this virus -- one that I so underestimated -- can be."

'Revenge of the viruses'

Piot spoke with grim humor of how the thought "revenge of the viruses" flitted through his mind as he was put on oxygen and admitted to the hospital several weeks after his initial COVID-19 diagnosis.

He learned firsthand of the depression and loneliness that patients, isolated from family, face in the hospital. He also learned of the fear that, even if he survived, some symptoms from the disease might never go away.

A microbiologist, Piot is known for co-discovering the Ebola virus in Africa and for leading research on the HIV/AIDS virus. He began working as a coronavirus adviser to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when the current pandemic broke out.

Today other world leaders in industry and politics also contact him for advice about how to protect against this virus. Never before has he been infected with a virus he's been tracking.

COVID-19 symptoms unlike any flu

When Piot first came down with a high fever, muscle aches, a sore throat and a splitting headache in mid-March, he thought he might have COVID-19. But he wasn't worried, figuring it would soon pass like the flu.

He soon realized this was unlike any flu he'd experienced. His scalp burned and the severe fatigue and pounding headaches immobilized him. As he says in the article:

"It felt like this virus was in every single cell in my body. Maybe it was. We know today that it definitely affects other organs, rather than just the lungs."

After a week in the hospital, with his fever down and oxygen levels close to normal, Piot returned home to finish recovering. Then his oxygen levels started jumping around, the fatigue returned with a vengeance, and he headed back to the hospital.

There, he was diagnosed with "hyper-inflammatory immune response." He had an irregular heart beat and interstitial pneumonia caused by inflammation in the lungs. He was given a steroid to dampen the immune response and, again, sent home to rest.

For two months, that's what he tried to do -- stay positive and rest. It wasn't easy. During this period, the New York Times and Science magazine both ran stories that were read around the world about the renowned virus hunter being caught by a virus.

The novel coronavirus and the 'long haulers'

"After my story appeared, I got close to a thousand emails from readers," Piot said. "Quite a few of them, said, 'Hey, I've got the same thing.'"

People writing to him called themselves "long haulers." They were dealing with varying symptoms, including severe fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal and kidney problems, many of which continued for three, sometimes four months.

When I talked to Piot, I asked him about a story that had recently appeared in the Atlantic about the growing number "long haulers." His voice grew excited as he said, "Yes, yes, that it's a serious concern." It was certainly one of the things he worried about when he headed back to the hospital that second time.

He told me:

"I saw the images of my lungs. They were opaque and looked much worse than when admitted with the acute infection. That was from this inflammatory response that didn't happen during the acute stage. It was chronic and I couldn't do anything."

Piot considers himself recovered now, although he said he "probably has a bit of lung fibrosis." But this pandemic is far from over, he said, and the unknowns, including the possibility of lingering health problems, remain.

"We are going to see a whole generation of people left with chronic conditions," Piot said.

Image by Riccardo Vecchio

Read more from Stanford Medicine magazine's special report on COVID-19 here.

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