Q&A with Peter Piot

Jim Kim, Joy Phumaphi and Peter Piot
Jim Kim, Joy Phumaphi and Peter Piot

He’s been at the center of things. Dr. Peter Piot, former Executive Director of UNAIDS, and now the Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, just published a memoir, No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses.As a young researcher, Piot helped discover the deadly Ebola virus and traced its transmission routes in Central Africa. Not long after, working as a doctor in his native Belgium, he treated patients with a new, mysterious disease. That disease would later be named AIDS. Piot would later become the Executive Director of UNAIDS, helping to establish the agency’s global agenda.

While visiting the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Piot sat down with Spotlight Editor Martha Henry to answer questions.

Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist?

Yes, without any doubt. I’m an AIDS activist, a scientist, sometimes a diplomat, sometimes an entrepreneur — all at the same time.

In 2012 there was a lot of talk about “the end of AIDS.” What’s your reaction when you hear that phrase?

I think it’s not credible. According to UNAIDS, last year there were 1.7 million deaths from AIDS and 2.5 million people became infected. HIV incidence (new infections) was on the rise in a country like Uganda. So I think we better stop talking about the end of AIDS. We’ve made major achievements, there’s no doubt about it, but I don’t think we’ll see the end of AIDS in my generation.

One of your mantras when you were head of UNAIDS was “keeping AIDS as a global issue, not one of poor Africa.” Why was that important?

Well, I think that one of the major assets, if you can say so, is that HIV is happening everywhere. It’s a global issue. Every day in the U.S. several people become infected with HIV, just as in South Africa, just as in Thailand, just as in Brazil. In our ever more connected world, I think that makes it a very powerful paradigm for globalization. We know that if a disease happens only in Africa, it becomes marginalized. Pharmaceutical industries are not going to invest in new drugs, research dollars will also be less. These are the realities.

How important will scientific research be to eventually ending the AIDS epidemic?

When you look at our achievements to date, it’s due, on the one hand, to science, but also to politics. The most spectacular scientific breakthrough was the discovery of antiretroviral therapy as treatment. When science and politics and programs on the ground are in sync, I think we can move mountains. But without the science, I don’t see how the money can do more. So we need to know more about what works, what doesn’t work, and where to invest our funding.