Life and history weren’t kind to Gaetan Dugas—the French Canadian flight attendant was one of the first handful diagnosed with HIV in the US and had to suffer vilification at the hands of the American public as Patient 0 (zero)—responsible for bringing the virus into the country. Dugas, who died in 1984, a year before the virus was discovered, was codenamed Patient O (O standing for out-of California)—which was misconstrued by the press of the day as Patient 0—in a landmark 1982 study that established the sexual transmission of the agent that caused Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of skin cancer that was later determined to be a HIV-related complication. With a significant number of those detected with the till-then unknown condition in the early 80s being homosexual men, HIV/AIDS was derisively called “gay plague/cancer”. The spread of the virus was squarely pinned to LGBT individuals—it added to the stigmatisation of those like Dugas, who were openly gay. No doubt, being singled out as Patient 0 would have compounded the stigma. It is only now that a scientific study published in Nature has cleared his name.
The team of scientists led by University of Arizona (Tucson) biologist Michael Worobey and Cambridge historian Richard McKay analysed 2,000 decades-old blood serum samples collected from gay men in 1978-79 to test for hepatitis B and found that the virus had been around in the US since at least the early-1970s—much before Dugas caught the infection. The researchers sequenced the genetic traces of HIV retrieved from the samples and found them similar to that of HIV strains present in the Caribbean, particularly Haiti; more strikingly, the sequences didn’t match those of the strain from Dugas’s blood. It meant, as Worobey puts it, that he was no different from any of the others who were already infected before the disease was noticed. The study should show how difficult it is to scientifically name a ‘patient zero’.