The history books have been corrupted, according to a new genetic study that reveals that Gaétan Dugas – the man blamed for bringing HIV into North America in the 1980s – was not in fact “Patient Zero”. The results of this research prove that the virus actually entered the US a decade before Dugas rose to notoriety, and that thousands of other people had already been infected by the time HIV was discovered in his blood.
Dugas was a gay Canadian flight attendant who unwittingly passed the virus on to a number of his sexual partners, and was stigmatized as “Patient Zero” after his death. However, the authors of a new study in the journal Nature are now warning against this sort of finger-pointing when attempting to locate the source of an outbreak.
"Gaétan Dugas is one of the most demonised 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," explained study co-author Richard McKay in a statement.
It had long been assumed that HIV-1 group M subtype B entered the US in the early 1980s because no infected blood samples had ever been detected in the country prior to this date. To disprove this theory, the study authors analyzed blood samples given by gay men in New York and San Francisco in the late 1970s as part of a hepatitis study, some of whom were then diagnosed with HIV when awareness of the virus increased in the 1980s.
The HIV virus was first transferred to New York from the Caribbean, before later making it to the West Coast. UTBP/Shutterstock
This revealed that several men already had HIV during the 1970s, and an analysis of the virus’s genome showed that it actually descended from a strain of HIV that could be traced back to the Caribbean in the 1960s.
The virus was then transferred to New York around 1971, before being transferred to San Francisco in 1976, after which it mutated into a slightly different strain.
The researchers also calculated that the number of people infected with the virus in the US doubled every 10 months or so, meaning that by the time Dugas contracted HIV it would already have been carried by thousands of others across the country.
In spite of this, he remains the victim of a witch hunt and continues to carry the burden of blame for spreading HIV across North America.
"We hope this research will give researchers, journalists and the public pause before using the term Patient Zero. The phrase carries many meanings and a freighted history, and has seldom pointed to what its users have intended," said McKay.