'Patient Zero' Gaetan Dugas Not Source of HIV/Aids Outbreak, Study Confirms
New technique allows reconstruction of route by which HIV/Aids arrived in North America, confirming Dugas was not the source of subsequent pandemic
Scientists have managed to reconstruct the route by which HIV/Aids arrived in the US – exonerating once and for all the man long blamed for the ensuing pandemic in the west.
Using sophisticated genetic techniques, an international team of researchers have revealed that the virus emerged from a pre-existing epidemic in the Caribbean, arrived in New York by the early 1970s and then spread westwards across the US.
The research also confirms that Gaëtan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant named in 1987 by author Randy Shilts, was not the first person in the US to be infected, despite being dubbed “Patient zero” by a study of homosexual men with Aids in 1984. Analysis of his HIV genome shows that it was typical of strains of the virus within the US at the time and was not the root from which the virus diversified in North America.
That, the authors say, ties in with a body of evidence that shows that Dugas was not the source of the pandemic in North America, highlighting that it was a typo that saw the original study’s reference to Dugas as “Patient O” (indicating that he lived outside of California), misleadingly written as “Patient 0” - a term now widely used to mean the first case of an outbreak.
“The current study provides further evidence that patient 57, the individual identified both by the letter O and the number 0 was not patient zero of the North American epidemic,” said Richard McKay, historian and co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge, adding that the authors of the original study pointed out he was unlikely to be the source.
Nevertheless, the idea that Dugas - who died of Aids in 1984 - was to blame caught on and he was vilified in the press.
“In many ways the historical evidence has been pointing to the fallacy of this particular notion of patient zero for decades,” said McKay. “This individual was simply one of thousands infected before HIV/Aids was recognised.”
Writing in the journal Nature, researchers from the US, UK and Belgium describe how they developed a new technique to unpick the history of HIV-1 group M subgroup B, the subtype of HIV that is most prevalent in the Western world.