A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue during the 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. Photo via AP Images.

Early coverage of the AIDS epidemic labeled flight attendant Ga√ętan Dugas as ‚ÄúPatient Zero,‚ÄĚ painting him as a sort of hyper-sexual boogeyman, creating a popular perception that he singlehandedly introduced HIV to America. A new study of blood samples from the late ‚Äė70s confirms that he did not‚ÄĒthe virus‚Äôs presence in America predates him.

The New York Times reports on the study, just published in Nature. Researchers looked at blood samples collected in New York and San Francisco in 1978 and 1979 for hep B research, a number of which turned out to have been taken from men with HIV. That allowed genome sequencing tracing the progress of various strains of the disease, a brain-meltingly impressive scientific achievement; ‚ÄúLooking at these archival samples allowed us to step back in time,‚ÄĚ Michael Worobey, the study‚Äôs lead author, explained to BuzzFeed News.

What they found, according to the Times:

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 own blood, sampled in 1983, contained a viral strain already infecting men in New York before he began visiting gay bars here after being hired by Air Canada in 1974.


If Dugas had in fact introduced the disease, his strain would have been more distinctive. It’s not clear how HIV did, in fact, get to the U.S. Via Buzzfeed News:

‚ÄúThere‚Äôs many plausible routes that the virus could have taken,‚ÄĚ Worobey said. ‚ÄúIt 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‚Äôt know.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúI think for any infectious disease‚ÄĒwhether it‚Äôs Zika or Ebola or SARS or flu or HIV‚ÄĒthere is value in trying to understand what it takes to make a successful outbreak,‚ÄĚ Worobey told Buzzfeed News, but ‚Äúthe idea of blaming people for a pathogen that infected thousands of people before anyone knew about it is absurd.‚ÄĚ


The study also clarifies that ‚ÄúPatient Zero‚ÄĚ was essentially a typo; in early studies, Dugas was actually ‚ÄúPatient O,‚ÄĚ meaning ‚Äúoutside Southern California.‚ÄĚ But the phrase stuck thanks to publicity around Randy Shilts‚Äôs 1987 bestseller And the Band Played On, and further coverage turned Dugas‚ÄĒwho died in 1984‚ÄĒinto a villainous stereotype in the popular narrative of the disease. (In fact, this was what made ‚ÄúPatient Zero‚ÄĚ into an epidemiological term.) Various researchers and advocates have worked for years to unravel the perception of Dugas, and the study provides them with still more ammunition.

The study points out another yet irony: Dugas probably stuck out so much because he kept a diary he handed over to investigators, which was particularly helpful in tracing the outbreak. No good deed, as they say.