TUCSON, AZ — A new study by scientists at the University of Arizona has made a significant find regarding the advent of the United States HIV/AIDS epidemic. The infection came to the States a decade earlier than previously reported, and began in New York City, not California. This new information clears the name of Gaetan Dugas, infamously known as “Patient Zero.”
Dr. Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist, led the study that found that the original American cases of HIV/AIDS originated in New York around 1970 or 1971 — much earlier than known — and that Dugas was not, in fact, the first American case.
“[HIV] was really under the radar for a decade or so,” Worobey told NPR.
Dugas has been vilified in the media for a considerable time, blamed as the trigger of the U.S. pandemic. He was first characterized as “Patient Zero” in ”And the Band Played On,” a book about the early days of the epidemic by San Francisco reporter Randy Shilts. The New York Post even ran a story about Dugas titled “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS.” Phil Tiemeyer, Kansas State University historian, explains the mischaracterization.
“He’s gay and unashamed about it. He’s beautiful. He’s even a foreigner who speaks with this seductive accent. He’s the perfect villain,” Tiemeyer said in an NPR interview.
The sad fact of the matter is that Dugas was entirely mischaracterized. He was not a villain, knowingly spreading a deadly virus. Once his positive status was confirmed, Dugas did everything in his power to help the CDC trace and fight the virus, flying cross-country to give blood samples and providing names of potentially positive people. Even while seriously ill, Dugas volunteered at a non-profit helping other people with HIV.
“You could place Dugas at the center of the cluster because I’m quite certain he shared more names of people… than any other person in that study,” Worobey explains. “There’s a kind of ascertainment bias… He has been blamed for things that no one should be blamed for.”
The misconception of Dugas as “Patient Zero” derives from a simple typographical error; in the original CDC study in California, begun in 1981, behavioral scientist William Darrow labeled Dugas “Patient O” — the letter O.
“I never labeled him as Patient Zero,” Darrow told NPR. Instead, “O” was used because Dugas was the only subject in the original study who came from Outside California.
Despite decades of misinformation about Dugas, Worobey’s study has finally exonerated the scapegoat of the American HIV/AIDS epidemic. Dugas’ blood samples reveal that his version of the virus is no different than many other secondary cases.
“There’s something nice about going back and correcting the record,” Worobey said.
Gaetan Dugas was no trigger; he was an innocent victim, vilified. Now, his life spent fighting HIV/AIDS both personally and in cooperation with scientists shows him to be something entirely different from a scapegoat or villain.
Gaetan Dugas was a martyr.