US HIV/AIDS ‘patient zero’ wrongfully labelled because of a typo

27 Oct 2016

HIV research. Image: Thanakrit Sathavornmanee/Shutterstock

One of the most in-depth studies into the spread of HIV/AIDS in the US has found that the so-called ‘patient zero’, Gaëtan Dugas, was wrongfully accused because one researcher made a very costly typo.

Nearly 1.2m people living in the US currently have HIV, and over 1.2m have been diagnosed with AIDS since the early 1980s. It was believed that a French-Canadian flight attendant called Gaëtan Dugas, otherwise known as ‘patient zero’, was the first person to bring it into the country.

This assumption came following a study of gay men with AIDS in 1984 – only two years after it was determined to not be limited solely to gay people – written by Randy Shilts.

Future Human

Originated in the Caribbean

Three years after the study was conducted, Shilts named Dugas as the first person in the US to have the immune deficiency disease, writing at the time that “there’s no doubt that Gaëtan played a key role in spreading the new virus from one end of the US to the other.”

Despite dying of AIDS in the same year the study began, Dugas was widely vilified by Americans for his role in spreading the pandemic that continues to this day.

However, according to The Guardian, an international team of researchers has conducted an extensive genomic study into how HIV spread across the region.

The results show that the virus emerged from an epidemic in the Caribbean before making its way over to New York in the early 1970s, where it then spread across the US.

Therefore, this research exonerates Dugas as being patient zero for HIV in the US, but to make matters worse, reading through the records of the original study has shown he might have been the victim of poor due diligence.

Victim of a ‘trail of error and hype’

By looking at his records, it appears that a typing error showed Dugas as ‘patient 0’, rather than the correct ‘patient O’ that indicated he was living outside of California.

Co-author of the new genomic study, Richard McKay of the University of Cambridge, has said that Dugas was the victim of a “trail of error and hype”.

“Gaëtan Dugas is 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,” he said.

In reality, Dugas was patient 57, with McKay adding that the historical evidence for this mistake has been evident for decades.

Publishing its findings in Nature, the researchers used a technique called ‘RNA jackhammering’ that allowed them to stitch fragments of the virus together for analysis, determining the disease’s origin in North America.

By assembling the complete HIV genome from eight of the earliest known examples of the virus, they could create a basic ‘family tree’ for it.

It is now hoped this partial tracing of its origins can help researchers better pinpoint the origins of future epidemics.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic