Quite a number of people were infected by HIV virus before the man generally though of as the center of the epidemic in the US, new genetic research shows.
A team of researchers from the University of Arizona have sequenced the HIV virus taken from nine men who became infected with the HIV virus back in the 1970s, and the findings show the man identified as “Patient Zero” was not the first to bring the virus into the United States.
In fact, the man identified as “Patient Zero” in the best-selling book And the Band Played On, was actually labeled as “Patient O” in the initial research, according to an article on npr.org.
The genetic work done by the researchers revealed the HIV virus likely came into the country from Haiti in 1970 or 1971, but doctors did not detect the virus for several years afterward. The team also uncovered the virus stayed in the New York area until about 1976, when an individual carried the virus with them to San Francisco.
In the early 80s, a young scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), William Darrow, was charged with trying to discover why gay men in Los Angeles were dying from an undetermined illness. Sometime later, Darrow heard a rumor that some of the first cases of AIDS had been lovers.
Darrow said , “This is the first indication that we had that the disease might be sexually transmitted from one person to another.”
After interviewing some of them, they named a flight attendant from Canada, Gaetan Dugas, as one of their lovers, eventually linking eight cases of AIDS to this man. When writing the report, Darrow referred to the patients by a code, rather than using their actual names, based on the city where they lived.
Dugas was assigned “Patient O” because he was from outside California, but others at the CDC began to reference Dugas as “Patient Zero” and the moniker stuck.
Darrow added the designation “was never meant to suggest that he was the first case. It only meant there was some person who was very important in this cluster of cases.”
This new research found that by the time Dugas was infected with HIV, there were already a large number of people in the US with the virus, numbering possibly in the thousands.
Evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, leader of the new study, said, To me, there’s something nice about going back and correcting the record. [Dugas] has been blamed for things that no one should be blamed for.”
Findings from the study were published in the journal Nature.