Study Confirms 'Patient Zero' Not Source of HIV/AIDS Outbreak
Using sophisticated genetic techniques, an international team of scientists have managed to reconstruct exactly how HIV/AIDS arrived in the U.S. In doing so, they've exonerated the man who has long been blamed for bringing the pandemic to the West.
In a New York Times article, researchers cleared Patient Zero, aka Gaétan Dugas, a globe-trotting, sexually insatiable French Canadian flight attendant who supposedly picked up HIV in Haiti or Africa and spread it to dozens, even hundreds, of men before his death in 1984.
After a new genetic analysis of stored blood samples and some historical detective work, scientists declared innocent "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS," as the New York Post once described him. The analysis showed that Dugas' blood, sampled in 1983 contained a viral strain of HIV that was already infecting New York City men before he began visiting gay bars there after being hired in 1974 by Air Canada.
In fact, researchers even found that Dugas was never Patient Zero. In an early epidemiological study of cases, he was dubbed Patient O, for "outside Southern California," where the study began. The symbol was later misread as a zero, laying the blame for the epidemic on one man. Doctors like Anthony S. Fauci, now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he remembered it seeming plausible at the time that one person was responsible.
In hindsight, he added, the idea now seems absurd. "We were unaware of how widespread it was in Africa," Dr. Fauci said. "Also, we thought, based on very little data, that it was only about two years from infection to death."
The UK Guardian reports that "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," according to Richard McKay, historian and co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge. McKay added that the authors of the original study had already pointed out Dugas was unlikely to be the source. He said a "trail of error and hype" had led to Dugas being branded with the "Patient Zero" title.
"Gaétan Dugas is one of the most demonized patients in history, and one of a long line of individuals and groups vilified in the belief that they somehow fueled epidemics with malicious intent," said McKay.
"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 recognized."
In the journal Nature, researchers describe how they used a new technique called "RNA jackhammering" to unpick the history of the HIV-1 group M subgroup B, the HIV subtype most prevalent in the western world.
They were able to painstakingly assemble the complete HIV genome from eight of the oldest-known samples, allowed the team to place them on a sort of "family tree" of the virus. What they discovered was that the virus was circulating in the US for a decade before what eventually became known as AIDS was recognized.
In fact, HIV had spread to Caribbean countries by around 1967, with the subtype arriving in New York by 1971 and reaching San Francisco by 1976.
"The findings released today tell us that the strain of HIV responsible for almost all AIDS cases in the United States came to New York City around 1971, debunking the myth of 'Patient Zero.' Gay Men's Health Crisis was formed as the effects of the deadly virus began to wreak havoc and take their toll," said GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie.
"Society, and in particular the media, were all too eager to cast blame on a single person, rather than reflect on the stigma they were creating and the lack of political will to actually do something about the disease," he continued. "The stigma created in the past is still strong today and prevents many from even getting tested for HIV for fear of being labeled a carrier. Were it not for Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Edmund White, and the other founders of GMHC, we would not be as close as we are now to ending the epidemic and someday finding a cure."