Somewhere Along the Way, HIV’s ‘Patient O’ Became ‘Patient Zero’

Photo: Wikipedia

Toward the beginning the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., the New York Post published a headline that, looking back, did not exactly help advance the public’s understanding of the crisis. “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS,” the paper shouted, with a photo of the man in question: Gaetan Dugas.

Dugas was a flight attendant who, so the story went, was “Patient Zero” in the epidemic, catching the virus during his international travels and then spreading it to the men he had sex with, thus sparking the health scare. It’s the story of HIV transmission that has been told for decades, and yet there is just one small problem with it — it isn’t true. This week, a new paper in Nature points out that the story makes little biological, or geographical, sense.

As the New York Times reports:

The strain of H.I.V. responsible for almost all AIDS cases in the United States, which was carried from Zaire to Haiti around 1967, spread from there to New York City around 1971, researchers concluded in the journal Nature. From New York, it spread to San Francisco around 1976.

The new analysis shows that Mr. Dugas’s blood, sampled in 1983, contained a viral strain already infecting men in New York before he began visiting gay bars in the city after being hired by Air Canada in 1974.

There are many reasons this origin story took hold, among them that Dugas was, essentially, used as a scapegoat. “It was too scary to think HIV was a general risk due to the vagaries of biology rather than a callous ‘bad guy,’” Dr. Richard Elion, an HIV/AIDS researcher at George Washington University, told Vox earlier this year.

But among those many reasons is a particularly bizarre one. In initial reports, scientists dubbed Dugas “Patient O,” as in the letter O, meaning that he was from “outside” California. “The ambiguous circular symbol on a chart was later read as a zero,” notes the Times, “stoking the notion that blame for the epidemic could be placed on one man.” Patient O became Patient Zero, and Patient Zero became Gaetan Dugas. The strange, sad mistake took decades to correct.

HIV’s ‘Patient O’ Became ‘Patient Zero’