A study conducted by an international group of researchers has confirmed that a French-Canadian flight attendant was not “patient zero” for the outbreak of Aids in the United States, The Guardian reported on Thursday. The group said their study revealed that Gaetan Dugas was not the first person in the US to be infected, despite him being given the title after he participated in a 1984 study of homosexual men with Aids.
Aids spread in the US after it emerged from a pre-existing epidemic in the Caribbean, the researchers said in a study published in Nature. The virus first infected people in the city of New York in the 1970s before spreading westwards across the country. The title of “patient zero” was probably given to Dugas because of a typing error in the original study, which referred to him as “Patient 0” instead of “Patient O” (the letter, indicating the individual was from outside the region where the study was held).
Historian and co-author of the study Richard McKay said that Dugas was “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”. “This individual was simply one of thousands infected before HIV/Aids was recognised”.
The researchers from the US, United Kingdom and Belgium said they had developed a new technique, “RNA jackhammering”, to study the history of HIV-1 group M subgroup B, the most common subgroup of the virus in the West. The method allowed the group to copy fragments of the virus’ RNA from different samples and stitch them to form a complete genome.
Author Randy Shilts named Dugas in 1987 and said there was “no doubt that Gaetan played a key role in spreading the new virus from one end of the United States to the other”. Shilts described him as a promiscuous and irresponsible individual. Dugas died in 1984 after assisting researchers studying whether the virus was caused by a sexually transmitted agent.