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HIV’s ‘Patient Zero’ Got An Unfair Rap

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For decades, Gaétan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant who was gay and HIV-positive, was vilified as “patient zero” in the arrival of HIV in the United States. This week, that 1980s legacy is being revised — Dugas never deserved the label at all. Scientists have pushed back against this idea for years, and researchers published a paper Wednesday in the journal Nature explaining how they analyzed blood serum samples from the late 1970s — as well as Dugas’s — and found that 1) the virus has been in the country since at least 1970 and 2) it appears to have traveled here from Africa via the Caribbean. They believe HIV landed first in New York City.

Dugas, who died in 1984, became widely known as patient zero largely because of journalist Randy Shilts’s 1987 book about the epidemic, “And the Band Played On,” which emphasized Dugas’s role in the spread of the virus. But the designation resulted from a misunderstanding of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research. In cooperation with CDC investigators in the early ’80s, Dugas provided the names of dozens of his sex partners, information that was particularly useful in mapping the spread of the virus and determining that it was sexually transmitted. He was given case number 057, but he was identified also as being from outside of California, where some of the research was conducted, so he became patient “O.” That O morphed into zero over time, and the myth was born. It’s not quite a transcription error, but the case is a reminder that casual misinterpretations of data can have lasting impacts.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Arizona, “found neither biological nor historical evidence that he was the primary case in the US,” the study says about Dugas. And, NPR reported, he might have been a pretty nice guy.

Blythe Terrell is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.