Did a scientist just bust the AIDS Patient Zero myth?

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Chances are you haven't heard of Gaetan Dugas, but you know him. For decades, he's been "Patient Zero," the man who brought HIV to the United States, the promiscuous, homosexual flight attendant who kickstarted an epidemic in the 1980s. But according to Science magazine—as well as science—Dugas, who died in 1984, was not Patient Zero, and the AIDS epidemic started even earlier than previously thought.

Dugas was never clearly named Patient Zero by any leading researchers studying the virus, but Randy Shilts’ 1987 book, And The Band Played On, as well as tabloids like the New York Post and People magazine did.


From And The Band Played On:

Speaking to Vox, Gregg Gonsalves, an HIV/AIDS activist and co-director of Yale's Global Health Justice Partnership, said, "Shilts created a modern-day Typhoid Mary in Dugas and allowed the origin story of this new illness to feature a villain with a foreign-sounding name and an out-of-control sexuality."

However, all that is starting to change. Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Arizona, made a presentation last week at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), an HIV/AIDS conference in Boston, on his latest research. Using blood samples from gay and bisexual men taken in the late 1970s that were once tested for hepatitis, Worobey and his team isolated HIV in the blood to create a viral genome.



Using a technique known as the molecular clock that allows researchers to create a family tree of different genetic isolates and place them in time, Worobey explained in a presentation at an HIV/AIDS meeting in Boston last week that the virus likely came to New York City in 1970 and was linked to viral isolates then circulating in Haiti and other Caribbean countries.


Dugas' sample fell in the middle of the tree, and appeared similar to later mutations of HIV, making it impossible for him to have been Patient Zero, since the virus had already touched down in America a decade prior. Worobey puts the likelihood of New York City being the origin of the epidemic as "very, very high."

Weirdly, as Science of Us points out, the CDC is as much to blame for Dugas' tarnished reputation as Shilts’s book and the alarmist media:

In the beginning stages of research, scientists referred to Dugas in their writings by the letter O, meaning that he was from “outside” California. Could that letter O have been misread by someone as the number 0?


There's no way to know that for sure, but to think that a person's reputation could be so thoroughly dragged through the mud posthumously because someone mistook the letter O for a zero? Worobey has been trying to clear Dugas' name for some time now, and it appears he finally has.

[h/t New York magazine]

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