The discovery of and research on the ebola virus

ITM researchers Guido van der Groen and Peter Piot discovered the Ebola virus, which was first studied in Zaire in 1976.

Van der Groen, Piot and their boss, Prof. Pattyn (1976)
Van der Groen, Piot and their boss, Prof. Pattyn (1976)

On 29 September 1976, a Sabena Airlines pilot landed in Antwerp to deliver a thermos bottle from Zaire. In this bottle, young ITM researchers Guido van der Groen and Peter Piot encountered the blood samples of a Flemish missionary who had contracted an unknown illness which had already caused dozens of fatalities. The World Health Organization (WGO) ordered ITM to send the blood samples to foreign labs with better security. But ITM kept some of the research material and continued its investigation.

Three days later, the WHO sent out the following telex: ‘On 14 October 1976, the 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.’ The two ITM researchers were thus the co-discoverers of the virus, which was later coined ‘Ebola’. They travelled to Zaire to study the epidemic.

The spaghetti-form Ebola virus under the electron microscope
The spaghetti-form Ebola virus under the electron microscope

The ITM made a name for itself during subsequent epidemics as well. For example, Dr Bob Colebunders helped combat the Ebola outbreak of 1995 in Kikwit (Zaire). During the unseen monster epidemic in West Africa (2014-2015), Prof. Johan Van Griensven coordinated a large-scale European research project on the treatment of Ebola, Prof. Kevin Ariën (head of virology) ensured that the illness could be diagnosed in Antwerp, and ITM internist Erika Vlieghe acted as the national Ebola coordinator.