Patient Zero is no more. Gaëtan Dugas, the man accused of bringing HIV/AIDS to North America, has finally been exonerated.
The Canadian flight attendant’s name has been cleared by new research, which looked at the sequence of HIV in blood samples taken from early AIDS patients.
Researchers at the University of Arizona, writing in the journal Nature, concluded that — contrary to popular mythology — Dugas could not have been the primary source of the spread of the deadly virus, NPR reports.
The researchers looked at samples from eight other men infected with HIV during the 1970s. Based on their findings, they estimated that HIV first came to the U.S. from Haiti in 1970 or 1971, but went undetected for years, The disease spread around New York City for a few years, until, in 1976, one person took the virus across the country to San Francisco.
“The virus got to New York City pretty darn early,” says Michael Worobrey, the evolutionary biologist who led the study. “It was really under the radar for a decade or so.”
As for Dugas’ involvement, several men who were among the first diagnosed with AIDS named him as a past sexual partner. But fingering him as “Patient Zero” happened largely because of a reporting error.
William Darrow, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who had investigated AIDS during the early days of the epidemic, began identifying patients by a code based on the city they lived in.
Darrow labeled Dugas “Patient O,” with the “o” representing “outside of California.”
Someone at the CDC referred to “Patient O” as “Patient Zero,” a moniker for Dugas that later took hold and continued to persist, even after his death in 1984.
Various media outlets began pointing to Dugas as the genesis of the disease, and the movie adaptation of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On further cemented Dugas as the person responsible for the virus’ spread.
But Worobrey says that the HIV sequence in Dugas’ blood looks similar to that of others infected with HIV around the same time. As such, he and his research team deduced that Dugas could not have been the originator of the epidemic.
“To me, there’s something nice about going back and correcting the record,” he says. “He has been blamed for things that no one should be blamed for.”
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