If the fight against the epidemic is a war, he is an army general on two fronts at the same time: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe is preparing to celebrate Monday a victory against Ebola, a parenthesis in the race against the new coronavirus.
At 78, the Congolese virologist has gone from one epidemic to another, with the added bonus of a controversy over the vaccines against Covid-19 that this "worthy son of the country" himself caused.
His statement on possible trials in the DRC blurred the image of this "great expert in the management of epidemics" with part of the Congolese, as his compatriot, gynecologist Denis Mukwege, 2018 Nobel Prize laureate, calls it.
This discreet, modest and smiling man, who is easily 10 years younger than his age with his eternal favorites and his Vichy shirts, has been working on Ebola virus disease since his identification in 1976 in his country, near the river of the same name. .
Since July 2019, he has been coordinating the "response" to the tenth epidemic of this hemorrhagic fever on Congolese soil, with success: the World Health Organization (WHO) must officially proclaim the end on Monday, after many setbacks.
With 2,273 deaths, it is the second most serious epidemic of Ebola since the discovery of the virus, to which Dr Muyembe contributed, within an international team.
- "With bare hands" -
In September 1976, the young doctor in virology, a graduate of the University of Louvain (Belgium), was sent to the north of ex-Zaire to study an as yet unknown disease affecting the Yambuku region.
"We were working with bare hands, without protective clothing. I took liver samples from two corpses, using a metal rod. If I had not washed my hands, I would have died", he says.
He is more particularly interested in one of the patients, a Belgian nun, whose blood sample is sent to the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, in a simple thermos filled with ice (one of the two test pieces will break during the trip).
"It was from this nun's sample that Dr. Peter Piot first isolated the Ebola virus," said the Congolese doctor.
Sent to Kinshasa, the Belgian researcher Peter Piot recounts in his memoirs that he met upon his arrival in a meeting "Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a brilliant young Zairian professor of microbiology, for whom I will develop deep respect thereafter".
Since 1976, Ebola epidemics have punctuated the life of the current director of the National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) in Kinshasa: "I have been present for each of them. I have devoted my whole life and my whole career fighting Ebola. "
When the virus reappeared in 1995 in Kikwit (south-west), Professor Muyembe attempted an experiment: "My team took blood from survivors and administered it to eight patients infected with the virus. Seven of them recovered ".
When the current Ebola epidemic broke out in August 2018, the director of the INRB first worked in the shadow of the Minister of Health at the time, Dr Oly Ilunga, a diaspora doctor today. today convicted of embezzlement and who claims his innocence from his prison cell by accusing one of his collaborators.
- "Guinea pigs" -
Faced with the new coronavirus, the first case of which was declared on March 10 in the DRC, it is only natural that President Félix Tshisekedi again calls on the man he calls a "worthy son of the country".
Experienced, Professor Muyembe then resumed endless meetings with donors, quickly erasing the new Minister of Health Eteni Longondo.
No one disputed the authority of the patriarch of epidemics, until his little sentence a week ago.
"The vaccine will be produced either in the United States, Canada or China. We are candidates to test here at home," he said.
Reverse all in the hours that follow, in front of the indignation of a part of the Congolese and Africans already very upset after the "provocative" statement of a French doctor suggesting to make the continent a vast field of study.
"My intention was not to say that we are going to start vaccination in the DRC, without it being tested in America or elsewhere. I am Congolese myself and I would never allow the Congolese to be used as guinea pigs" , tries to correct "general" Muyembe. The DRC has officially declared 215 cases of new coronavirus, for 20 deaths and 13 cures.
© 2020 AFP