For many years, Gaëtan Dugas was one of the most demonised patients in the world, as he was believed to be “patient zero” and the man responsible for spreading HIV to the US. Scientists have now proven that this is not the case.
The scientists involved have managed to reconstruct the route that HIV took to the US, thanks to the complex genetic analysis of thousands of blood samples collected in the 70’s. Their results were finally published in the journal Nature, and prove that Gaëtan Dugas was actually one of thousands of people infected at the time. In short, Gaëtan was not “patient zero” at all.
Their report also revealed that New York was crucial to the spread of the virus. Researchers found that the virus came to the US from Haiti in either 1970 or 1971, and then went undetected by doctors for years until the first case was reported in 1981.
Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study, said to BuzzFeed: “Looking at these archival samples allowed us to step back in time. There’s many plausible routes that the virus could have taken. It could be a person of any nationality moving from one region to the next. It could have been a contaminated blood product, since until the mid-1970s a lot of commercial blood products were imported to the US from Haiti. We simply don’t know.”
As we know, they also analysed Dugas’ blood, and of course determined that he was not the person who brought HIV to the US.
Dr Richard McKay, a science historian at the University of Cambridge spoke on the topic of Dugas to BBC News: “Gaetan 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.”
Professor Oliver Pybus, from the University of Oxford, also spoke to the BBC about Dugas: “This new data helps confirm the picture of HIV’s origins in the US. It makes a very interesting point about Patient Zero, who has become a talking point in the origins of Aids, yet no matter how attractive a narrative it is, it doesn’t have any scientific basis and it’s really unfortunate that this person was identified.”