Quirks & Quarks

HIV's 'patient zero' myth shattered by new research

New research reveals that HIV was in North America much earlier than previously thought, and that the man identified as "patient zero" was just one of its many unfortunate victims
Gaétan Dugas was known as "patient zero" in the HIV epidemic. (Wikipedia)

In the  early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was a mystery. AIDS, as we eventually learned, is caused by the HIV virus. But at the time, everything about this virus was completely unknown to doctors and scientists -- and that made it terrifying.

In North America, early efforts to understand the spread of the deadly disease fed the myth of a "patient zero," one person who was blamed for bringing the virus to the U.S. and spreading it through gay communities in New York and California. We learned later that this patient zero was a Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas. Dugas eventually died from an AIDS related illness in 1984. But the myth of patient zero outlived him, despite evidence that one point of transmission for HIV was highly unlikely.

Canadian scientist Dr. Michael Worobey tells us when the deadly virus really came to North America - and it's much earlier than we thought.

After HIV moved from Africa to the Caribbean, it first spread to New York and subsequently to different locations in the U.S. By constructing evolutionary trees of the various HIV strains as far back as the 1970s, the researchers found evidence that the virus had been circulating under the radar for ten years before the outbreak in the US was recognized. (Worobey et al./Nature)

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