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Peter Piot spent his career chasing viruses. Then COVID-19 ‘got’ him

No part of the globe has been spared the effects of the novel coronavirus, with people in nearly every country becoming infected. Although the severity of cases varies widely, even those who know viruses the best can fall victim to its devastating effects. William Brangham talks to Dr. Peter Piot, who for decades led the global fight against HIV/AIDS, about his own experience with the illness.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have seen, no part of the world has been spared from the effects of the coronavirus. People in nearly every country have been infected and fallen seriously ill.

    And, as William Brangham reports, sometimes, even those who know viruses most intimately fall victim.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Peter Piot has been chasing viruses his entire career. He was among the team that first discovered Ebola.

    Later, he helped prove it was HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, that was killing people in Africa. For two decades, he led two of the biggest global efforts to fight HIV/AIDS.

    But this March, the 71-year-old Piot got coronavirus. He's not sure how he was infected, but he had a terrible, painful stretch fighting COVID-19.

    I spoke with him recently from his home in London, England.

    Peter Piot, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Very good to see you.

  • Peter Piot:

    Good to see you.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you just tell us a little bit about your experience suffering with COVID-19?

  • Peter Piot:

    Well, after spending most of my adult life fighting viruses, from Ebola to particularly HIV, a virus got me.

    And on the 19th of March, I came down really pretty — within a few hours, with very severe headache, splitting headache, high fever, my allergies and my muscles. Everything ached. And I got really, really exhausted.

    And for seven days, I was in the hospital with oxygen, and until it was at the level that, you know, I could go back home. And things continued to improve. I had also bacterial pneumonia. I was treated for that.

    But I was still completely knocked out. It's really when — as if you're hit by a truck or sort of a bus. And then, suddenly, gradually, I started experiencing shortness of breath. I went to the hospital again. And they diagnosed me with a post-COVID — well, a pneumonia that's the result of — not of the virus directly, but of the inflammatory reaction.

    One of the things I didn't know was that it can be so chronic, that people have kidney problems, people have chronic lung problems, cardiac problems.

  • William Brangham:

    Things that will last for the rest of your life.

  • Peter Piot:

    Yes, it could be, yes. And so we need to plan for that as well, while, of course, we're trying to do everything to stop this virus from spreading.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm curious.

    As someone, as you were describing, who has fought against viruses your entire career and studied how they mutate, how they replicate, how they transmit from person to person, was there a point in your own illness where you moved from being you the scientist to you the patient?

  • Peter Piot:

    Yes, the moment I went to the emergency room and I — you know, I saw my chest X-ray, where — clearly pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia, my oxygen saturation.

    And so I switched from the doctor, from the scientist, the doctor to the patient. You know, your world shrinks completely. You think of breathing. Will I get out of here? How will I get out of here? I don't want to get on a ventilator.

    I was thinking of my wife, my children. And, yes, it was a really, really different experience for me.

  • William Brangham:

    You said earlier that the virus got you. And I know in another interview you described this as the virus getting revenge for all of the labors…

    (LAUGHTER)

    … you have done to push back on viruses all over the world.

    Do you see it — I mean, I understand that's a metaphor, but do you see it that way? Do you see it that it finally — a virus finally caught up with you?

  • Peter Piot:

    Yes and no.

    Maybe I thought it couldn't get me. I was — I was kind of invincible. Normally, you feel like that when you're 27. But I always tried to stay — even in the saddest moments, to find a bit of humor and satire and, you know, enjoy — like, the fact I lost seven kilos, and I said, that's a silver lining, because, with all my exercise, I never got my BMI to within normal range. And now I'm there.

    (LAUGHTER)

    So, OK. But…

  • William Brangham:

    The COVID diet plan.

  • Peter Piot:

    Yes. Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    I don't know if that's going to take off.

  • Peter Piot:

    I'm not suggesting it, but — although I was careful already before I — we had the lockdown and start working remotely. I wouldn't shake hands. I would keep some distance.

    But, obviously, it was not enough.

  • William Brangham:

    In much of your career at UNAIDS, you talked a lot about and wrestled a lot with balancing the competing interests sometimes of science and politics and economics.

  • Peter Piot:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    And we have certainly seen that being a struggle here, with public health officials urging lockdowns, and the economic and political pressure to say, no, you're strangling our economy. We have to reopen.

    Do you think that we have struck the right balance thus far in this pandemic?

  • Peter Piot:

    It's the reality of life, of everything, this trade-off.

    And it's come to very extreme dimensions with COVID-19, because we know that the virus is still there. And if we relax public health measures, we will, nearly guaranteed, have a second wave and a third wave in outbreaks.

    So, we need to approach it, I think, as a risk management, because we can't close society forever, because we would all get so poor, and there will be nothing to fight the epidemic with. On the other hand, if this epidemic is not under control, we simply can't restart the economy at full speed.

    So, as societies, we will have to learn how to live with COVID-19, and with a certain risk that we accept or not. I mean, it's not as extreme as, you know, we accept that X-people a year die in car accidents. We're not going to stop driving a car.

    And, however, the problem with the COVID-19 is that, if we don't bring it really under control and make, for example, hospitals, health care settings safe, that's going to undermine a lot of other things. So we need to put our efforts there where the epidemic is.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Peter Piot, very nice to see you upright and healthy again. Thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Peter Piot:

    Thank you, William. Thank you.

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