Gaëtan Dugas is free from blame of AIDS Patient Zero

Last updated on April 27th, 2018

Science is not perfect nor does all those breakthrough discoveries. Those beliefs that we have right now about a particular thing, person, event or discovery may change anytime soon, if a new research gives sufficient evidence against it.  For many years, scientific communities, press and general public believed/ blamed Gaëtan Dugas as a “Patient Zero” but recently he was exonerated, thanks recent article published in the journal ‘Nature’. After recovering and analyzing viral RNA from archival samples of 1970s, and using phylogenetic tools such as Bayesian phylogenetic analyses, a group of scientist tried to refute widespread misinterpretation that he infected many people with HIV-1.

The term ‘patient zero’ is used to denote an original or primary case of a disease.

Researchers refute Patient 0 claim in the writing in Nature, “We also recovered the HIV-1 genome from the individual known as ‘Patient Zero’ and found neither biological nor historical evidence that he was the primary case in the US or for subtype B as a whole.

Who was Gaëtan Dugas?

Gaëtan Dugas was a gay Air Canada flight attendant.  He was supposed to have over thousands sexual partner mostly male across North America.  It was told that at least 40 of the 248 people diagnosed with AIDS by April 1982 were thought to have had sex either with him or with someone he had. He was blamed as “Patient Zero”: the man who supposedly introduced AIDS to the United States. Journalist Randy Shilts described Dugas as “the Quebeçois version of Typhoid Mary” and  labelled him as a villain and sinner whose reckless sexual behaviour helped the AIDS epidemic to take hold.

In 1993 a film was made based on the best-selling book by Randy Shilts ” And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic”


Some historians even wrote Dugas had “sown the disease and death all along his route, at the rate of about 250 partners per year.” Dugas died in March 30, 1984 at the age of 30 years.

How he is free from blame now?

Scientists who published this recent article in nature, serologically screened more than 2000 1970s serum samples. They recovered HIV RNA and after phylogenetic analysis found that US HIV-1 epidemic exhibited extensive genetic diversity.

The initial introduction of HIV 1 subtype B lineage into the Caribbean was from Africa. HIV virus first spreads to NewYork and subsequently to different locations in the United States. Genetic sequencing viral RNA showed that the strain infecting him had circulated among gay men in New York for several years before he arrived in 1974. Therefore, although Dugas had hundreds of sexual partners in several cities, he did not introduce the virus to North America. Scientist found no evidence to tell that Patient 0 was the first person infected by this lineage of HIV-1.


The early patterns of HIV-1 subtype B spread in the Americas (source: Nature)

Further Reading and References

  1. MCKAY RA, ““Patient Zero”: The Absence of a Patient’s View of the Early North American AIDS Epidemic. (Link:
  2. Worobey M et al.1970s and ‘Patient 0’ HIV-1 genomes illuminate early HIV/AIDS history in North America (Link:
About Acharya Tankeshwar 474 Articles
Hello, thank you for visiting my blog. I am Tankeshwar Acharya. Blogging is my passion. I am working as an Asst. Professor and Microbiologist at Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Patan Academy of Health Sciences, Nepal. If you want me to write about any posts that you found confusing/difficult, please mention in the comments below.

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