HIV Pa­tient Zero cleared by sci­ence

Malta Independent - - HEALTH -

One of the most de­monised pa­tients in his­tory - Gae­tan Du­gas has been con­vinc­ingly cleared of claims he spread HIV to the US, say sci­en­tists.

Mr Du­gas, a ho­mo­sex­ual flight at­ten­dant, gained legendary sta­tus in the his­tory of HIV/Aids when he be­came known as Pa­tient Zero.

But a study, in the jour­nal Na­ture, showed he was just one of thousands of in­fected peo­ple in the 1970s.

It also showed New York was a cru­cial hub for the spread of the virus.

Aids only started to be recog­nised in 1981 when un­usual symp­toms started ap­pear­ing in gay men.

But re­searchers were able to look fur­ther back in time by analysing stored blood sam­ples, some of them con­tain­ing HIV, from hep­ati­tis tri­als in the 1970s.

The team at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona de­vel­oped a new method to re­con­struct the ge­netic code of the virus in those pa­tients.

And after screen­ing 2,000 sam­ples from New York and San Fran­cisco, the re­searchers were able to get eight com­plete HIV ge­netic codes.

That gave sci­en­tists the in­for­ma­tion they needed to build HIV’s fam­ily tree and trace when it ar­rived in the US.

Dr Michael Worobey, one of the re­searchers, said: “The sam­ples con­tain so much ge­netic di­ver­sity that they could not have orig­i­nated in the late 1970s.

“We can place the most pre­cise dates on the ori­gins of the US epi­demic at about 1970 or 1971.”

The re­searchers also an­a­lysed the ge­netic code of human im­mun­od­e­fi­ciency virus taken from Mr Du­gas’s blood.

Like a failed pa­ter­nity test, the re­sults showed that the virus in his blood was not the “fa­ther” of the US epi­demic.

Dr Richard McKay, a sci­ence his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, said: “Gae­tan Du­gas is one of the most de­monised pa­tients in his­tory and one of a long line of in­di­vid­u­als and groups vil­i­fied in the be­lief that they some­how fu­elled epi­demics with ma­li­cious in­tent.”

The Air Canada em­ployee was la­belled Pa­tient O (the let­ter, not the num­ber) by the US Cen­tres for Dis­ease Con­trol be­cause he was a case “Out-of-California”.

Over time the O be­came a 0 and the term Pa­tient Zero was born. It is still used to this day to de­scribe the in­dex case of an out­break as with Ebola in west Africa.

Mr Du­gas died in 1984, but was iden­ti­fied as Pa­tient Zero in the book And the Band Played On.

The study also un­cov­ered New York’s key role in the spread of the in­fec­tion.

Kin­shasa in the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo was seen as the city that started the global pan­demic. From there it spread to the Caribbean and the US around 1970.

Dr Worobey said: “In New York City, the virus en­coun­tered a pop­u­la­tion that was like dry tin­der, caus­ing the epi­demic to burn hot­ter and faster and in­fect­ing enough peo­ple that it grabs the world’s at­ten­tion for the first time.

“Just as Kin­shasa was a key turn­ing point for the pan­demic virus as a whole, New York City looks like a turn­ing point and acts as this hub from which the virus moves to the west coast and even­tu­ally to Western Europe, Aus­tralia, Ja­pan, South Amer­ica and all sorts of other places.”

Prof Oliver Py­bus, from the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, com­mented: “This new data helps con­firm the picture of HIV’s ori­gins in the US.

“It makes a very in­ter­est­ing point about Pa­tient Zero, who has be­come a talk­ing point in the ori­gins of Aids, yet no mat­ter how at­trac­tive a nar­ra­tive it is, it doesn’t have any sci­en­tific ba­sis and it’s re­ally un­for­tu­nate that this per­son was iden­ti­fied.”

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