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Genomics and the Exoneration of Patient Zero

His name was Gaëtan Dugas. He was a Canadian flight attendant infected with the HIV virus who succumbed to AIDS in 1984. Through misinterpretation and shoddy reporting of early CDC research on the disease, Dugas came to be labeled Patient Zero and identified as “the man who gave us AIDS.” In 1987, reporter Randy Shilts vilified him as a sociopath in his book And the Band Played On. Soon the story was disseminated by 60 Minutes and other news sources.

However, researchers using cutting edge methods to sequence eight full-length viral genomes from the 1970s, have published their findings in Nature and cleared Dugas’ name. According to journal editors, analyses conducted by Michael Worobey and colleagues “suggest that the virus was introduced to New York City around 1970 and that by 1979 the epidemic was already relatively mature and genetically diverse.” While Dugas was at the center of a particular cluster of cases, thousands of men already had the misfortune of being infected with the virus in New York and San Francisco at the time.

Read more about it:

Worobey, M., Watts, T. D., McKay, R. A., Suchard, M. A., Granade, T., Teuwen, D. E.,… Jaffe, H. W. (2016). 1970s and
‘Patient 0’ HIV-1 genomes illuminate early HIV/AIDS history in North America.  Nature, 539(7627), 98-101.
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NPR Story




Shilts’ book available at Falvey Library.




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Last Modified: November 8, 2016

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