Congolese microbiologist Dr. Jean Jacques Muyembe Tamfum’s long road to recognition for his scientific discoveries began in 1976.

That year, Muyembe, then working as a field epidemiologist in Kinshasa, traveled to central Congo to investigate a deadly outbreak of an unidentified infectious disease. He collected a blood sample from a patient but, due to insufficient local laboratory capacity, sent it on to colleagues in Belgium for further investigation. For the next four decades, it was those scientists, along with peers in England and the United States, who received credit for discovering Ebola.

Muyembe’s challenges with international partnerships and scientific recognition was the topic of the 2021 Stephen Stewart Gloyd Endowed Lecture, held on December 1 at the University of Washington Foege Auditorium. The highly anticipated Gloyd Lecture series invites leaders from around the world to UW to address issues of global health justice and equity. Past speakers include Stephen Lewis, Dr. Paulo Ivo Garrido, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.

“This lecture is a great opportunity to bring to the UW voices from the Global South who can teach us about their struggles for global health justice. And it’s an opportunity to learn from their stories and to challenge our own conventional wisdom about what works and what doesn’t work in global health and to address the questions that we often avoid,” said Steve Gloyd, the UW professor of global health for whom the lecture series was named.

Speaking frankly and openly, Muyembe – now the general director of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in Kinshasa and the president of the Congolese Academy of Science – shared many of the challenges he has encountered during his long career fighting Ebola. Not only was he not given proper credit for his role in discovering the virus, but his efforts to develop a treatment for Ebola were undermined by the Western scientific community for decades as well.

In 1995, during an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Muyembe’s team treated eight infected patients with a blood transfusion from a survivor. Seven recovered. At the time, Western researchers discounted the experiment due to its small sample size, but Muyembe held onto his belief that there was merit to this intervention. In 2006, he began partnering with scientists from the National Institutes of Health to create and test a human monoclonal antibody medication capable of treating Ebola. Ebanga, for which Muyembe received a patent, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2020.

Reflecting on the lengthy time between first observing the success of blood transfusions at treating Ebola and developing Ebanga, Muyembe said: “If this observation was accepted at this time [1995], this product would have saved many, many lives. But it took more or less 20 years to recognize these first observations because it was done by the Congolese team.”

After decades of being underestimated and overlooked, Muyembe’s hard work and integrity have finally started to pay off. TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2020. Nature included him in its list of the ten people who mattered in science in 2019. And that same year, the Government of Japan awarded him the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize.

“It is late, but is good,” said Muyembe of his recent accolades.

Nevertheless, Muyembe still sees value in partnerships between the North and South. However, he outlined fundamental changes needed to ensure that these partnerships are equitable, including granting funding directly to local institutions to promote good governance, using local subject matter experts to tackle local challenges, and empowering current and future generations to address the legacies of racism and colonialism in the fields of scientific research and global health. Muyembe added that while local institutions may need collaboration from international partners to strengthen their research capacity and health systems, they don’t need baby-sitting. 

“I am here as an ambassador telling you that my country needs your support. Support that considers the colonial past and our shared heritage to build a new and well-defined partnership, where institutions like yours offer the expertise that will benefit a country like mine,” said Muyembe.

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About the Stephen Steward Gloyd Endowed Lectureship

The Gloyd Lecture was originally established in 1982 by Professor Lynn Staheli of Children’s Medical Center to honor his mentor, Dr. Park Gloyd.  In 2001, Park Gloyd endowed the lectureship as the Stephen Stewart Gloyd Endowed Lectureship to honor his son, Dr. Steve Gloyd, who was a pioneer in global health at the UW. Steve is Professor of Global Health and Health Services, and adjunct Professor in Epidemiology, Family Medicine, Industrial and Systems Engineering, and the Evans School of Public Affairs.  Steve created, in 1987, the International Health Program in the School of Public Health, and has been a longstanding global champion of social justice and equity. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the 38th UW Faculty Lecturer, the UW-wide Distinguished Teaching Award, and the 2010 Barsky Award for courageous and effective advocacy for human rights – selected by the American Public Health Association Physician’s Forum.  

By Amy Frances Goldstein