The news over the past 24 hours has exclaimed over and over:
HIV’s supposed “Patient Zero” in the U.S., Gaetan Dugas, is off the hook! He wasn’t responsible for our outbreak!
This is presented as new information.
It is not, and I think by focusing on the “exoneration” of Dugas, a young flight attendant and one of the earliest diagnosed cases of AIDS in the U.S., these articles (referencing a new Nature paper) are missing the true story in this publication–that Dugas was really a victim of Shilts and the media, and remains so, no matter how many times the science evidence has cleared his name.
First, the idea that Dugas served to 1) bring HIV to the U.S. and 2) spark the epidemic and infect enough people early on that most of the initial cases could be traced back to him is simply false. Yes, this was the hypothesis based on some of the very early cases of AIDS, and the narrative promoted in Randy Shilts’s best-selling 1987 book, “And the Band Played On.” But based on the epidemiology of first symptomatic AIDS cases, and later our understanding of the virus behind the syndrome, HIV, we quickly understood that one single person in the late 1970s could not have introduced the virus and spread it rapidly enough to lead to the level of infections we were seeing by the early 1980s. Later understanding of the virus’s African origin and its global spread made the idea of Dugas as the epidemic’s originator in America even more impossible.
When we think of Dugas’s role in the epidemiology of HIV, we could possibly classify him as, at worst, a “super-spreader“–and individual who is responsible for a disproportionate amount of disease transmission. Dugas acknowledged sexual contact with hundreds of individuals between 1979 and 1981–but his numbers were similar to other gay men interviewed, averaging 227 per year (range 10-1560). And while Shilts portrayed Dugas as a purposeful villain, actively and knowingly spreading HIV to his sexual partners, that does not jibe with both our scientific knowledge of HIV/AIDS or with the assistance Dugas provided to scientists studying the epidemic. Dugas worked with researchers to identify as many of his partners as he could (~10% of his estimated 750), as the scientific and medical community struggled to figure out whether AIDS stemmed from a sexually-transmitted infection, as several lines of evidence suggested. There’s no evidence Dugas was maliciously infecting others, though that was the reputation he received. Dugas passed away from complications of AIDS in March of 1984–weeks before the discovery of HIV was announced to the general public.
Furthermore, the information in the new publication is not entirely novel. Molecular analyses carried out in part by Michael Worobey, also an author on the new paper, showed almost a decade ago that Dugas could not have been the true “Patient Zero.” The 2007 paper, “The emergence of HIV/AIDS in the Americas and beyond,” had the same conclusions as the new paper: HIV entered the U.S. from the Caribbean, probably Haiti, and was circulating in the U.S. by the late 1960s–when Dugas was only about 16 years old, and long before his career as a flight attendant traveling internationally. So this 2007 molecular analysis should have been the nail in the coffin of the Dugas-as-Patient-Zero ideas.
But apparently we’ve forgotten that paper, or other work that has followed the evolution of HIV over the 20th century.
What is unique about the new publication is that it included a sample from Dugas himself, via a plasma contribution Dugas donated in 1983, and other samples banked since the late 1970s. The new paper demonstrated that Dugas’s sample is not in any way unique, nor is it a “basal” virus–one of the earliest in the country, from which others would diverge. Instead, it was representative of what was already circulating among others infected with HIV at that time. In supplemental information, the authors also demonstrated how notation for Dugas in scientific notes changed from Patient 057, then to Patient O (for “Outside California”) to Patient 0/”Zero” in the published manuscript–which Shilts then named as Dugas and ran with in his narrative.
The media then extended Shilts’s ideas, further solidifying the assertion that Dugas was the origin of the U.S. epidemic, and in fact that he was outright evil. The supplemental material notes that Shilts didn’t want the focus of the media campaign initially to be about Dugas, but was convinced by his editor, who suggested the Dugas/Patient Zero narrative would result in more attention than the drier critiques of policy and inaction in response to the AIDS epidemic by the Reagan administration.
And the media certainly talked about it. A 1987 edition of U.S. News and World Report included a dubious quote attributed to Dugas: “‘I’ve got gay cancer,’ the man allegedly told bathhouse patrons after having sex with them. ‘I’m going to die, and so are you.’” NPR’s story adds “The New York Post ran a huge headline declaring “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS. Time magazine jumped in with a story called ‘The Appalling Saga Of Patient Zero.’ And 60 Minutes aired a feature on him. ‘Patient Zero. One of the first cases of AIDS. The first person identified as the major transmitter of the disease,’ host Harry Reasoner said.”
This is the real scandal and lingering tragedy of Dugas. His story was used to stoke fear of HIV-infected individuals, and especially gay men, as predators seeking to take others down with them. His story was used in part to justify criminalization of HIV transmission. So while science has exonerated him again and again, will the public–and the media–finally follow?