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Story highlights

A new study clears the name of Gaëtan Dugas, known as HIV patient zero

Scientists restored HIV genomes to better understand its origins

CNN —  

The man blamed for bringing HIV to the United States just had his name cleared.

New research has proved that Gaëtan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant who was dubbed “patient zero,” did not spread HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to the United States.

A cutting-edge analysis of blood samples from the 1970s offers new insight into how the virus spread to North America via the Caribbean from Africa. More than 1.2 million people in the United States currently live with HIV.

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists, was published this week in the journal Nature.

“No one should be blamed for the spread of a virus that no one even knew about, and how the virus moved from the Caribbean to the US in New York City in the 1970s is an open question,” co-author of the research, Dr. Michael Worobey, a professor and head of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Arizona, said at a news conference Tuesday.

“It could have been a person of any nationality. It could have even been blood products. A lot of blood products used in the United States in the 1970s actually came from Haiti,” he said. “What we’ve done here is try to get at the origins of the first cases of AIDS that were ever noticed. … When you step back in time, you see a very interesting pattern.”

’Patient zero’ and the power of a name

In 1981, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first documented a mysterious disease. In their research, they linked the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to sexual activity.

Gaëtan Dugas was dubbed "patient zero."
Fair Use
Gaëtan Dugas was dubbed "patient zero."

The researchers began to study one cluster of homosexual men with HIV, and beginning in California, they eventually connected more than 40 men in 10 American cities to this network.

Dugas was placed near the center of this cluster, and the researchers identified him as patient O, an abbreviation to indicate that he resided outside California.

However, the letter O was misinterpreted as a zero in the scientific literature. Once the media and the public noticed the name, the damage was done.

Dugas and his family were condemned for years. In Randy Shilts’ seminal book on the AIDS crisis, “And The Band Played On,” Dugas is referenced extensively and referred to as a “sociopath” with multiple sexual partners.

In 1987, the National Review referred to him as the “Columbus of AIDS,” and the New York Post called him “the man who gave us AIDS” on its front page.

“We were quite annoyed by that, because it was just simply wrong, but this doesn’t stop people from saying it, because it’s so appealing. You know, ‘The man who brought us AIDS.’ Well, if it were true, it would be annoying, but since it isn’t true, it’s even more annoying,” said Dr. James Curran, dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and co-director of the university’s Center for AIDS Research.

Curran, who was not involved in the new research, coordinated the AIDS task force at the CDC in 1981 and then led the HIV/AIDS division until 1995.

“The CDC never said that he was patient zero and that he was the first person,” Curran said of Dugas.

“In addition to the potential damage to his reputation, it was also a damage to scientific plausibility. That there would be a single-point source to start the epidemic in the United States is not very likely. It’s more likely that several people were infected,” Curran said. “I think that the concept of patient zero has always been wrong and flawed, and scientists never said it.”

Dugas died in 1984 of AIDS-related complications. Now, more than 30 years later, scientists have used samples of his blood to clear his name.

Going back in time with blood

For the new research, Worobey and his colleagues gathered archival blood samples in New York and San Francisco that were originally collected for a hepatitis B study in 1978 and 1979. The samples came from men who had sex with men.