HIV broke into the public imagination in the early 1980s after a cluster of young gay men in San Francisco, LA, and New York City developed unexplainable cases of skin cancer and pneumonia. At first glance, doctors suspected these men were abusing party drugs, but they quickly became aware of a much more worrying prospect: a transmittable virus.
The virus didn’t even have a name yet, but slowly mounting concern from the public was pushing scientists to figure out where this emerging illness was heading. To do so, they first wanted to work out where, or who, it came from.
In 1981, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) interviewed many of the young men living in the Los Angeles area with the mysterious illness in the hopes of finding some kind of link. When asked about their sexual history, one name repeatedly popped up: Gaëtan Dugas.
During his regular travels as a flight attendant in the 1970s and early 1980s, this sexually-voracious Canadian man was believed to have slept with thousands of men, potentially spreading the virus to hundreds of people across North America and the wider world. It was reported at least eight of the first 19 HIV cases reported in Los Angeles alone had sexual relations with Dugas or one of his previous sexual partners.
His face and the tagline “PATIENT ZERO” was later splashed across newspapers and TV reports, often alongside accusations that he recklessly – even maliciously – helped to bring the virus across the Atlantic and began the domino effect across the world.
However, this idea of Dugas as “patient zero” is a total myth. A Nature study of his HIV genome in 2016 revealed that it was typical of strains of the virus within the US at the time and was not the root of the virus' diversification in North America. Dugas, who died of AIDS complications in 1984, was absolved of being “patient zero”.
“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 fuelled epidemics with malicious intent,” said Dr Richard McKay from Cambridge University's Department of History and Philosophy of Science.
“In many ways, the historical evidence has been pointing to the fallacy of Patient Zero for decades,” he added. “We now have additional phylogenetic evidence that helps to consolidate this position.”