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Scientists have used genetic reconstruction to trace HIV in the USA further back than previously expected, exonerating “Patient Zero”

Gaëtan Dugas (1953 - 1984)
Gaëtan Dugas (1953 – 1984)

When talking about the origins of the HIV and AIDS epidemic one name comes up again and again, Gaëtan Dugas. Gaëtan was a flight attendant who worked for Air Canada who was well travelled and had an active sex life. At one time he claimed to have over 2,500 sexual partners.

In 1984 a Centres for Disease Control (CDC) report tracking the sexual spread of HIV and other STIs put Gaëtan Dugas at the centre of the epidemic due to his connections around the UK and linked sexual partners.

This week a team of British and American scientists used genetic reconstruction to narrow HIV’s arrival in the USA down to 1970 or 1971 before Gaëtan was even sexually active.

The team used a technique called ‘RNA jackhammering’ on samples collected from men infected in the 1970s. The technique breaks apart the HIV genome, recombines them into usable RNA and from there the scientists can look at the mutation rates and pathways to find common ancestry.

From the samples collected and tested they found that HIV in the USA already had too much genetic diversity by the late 1970s for “Patient Zero”, Gaëtan Dugas, to be responsible. HIV had arrived and was in circulation before he was even sexually active.

This news hopefully exonerates the name of Gaëtan Dugas, who’s name has often been used in less than polite context over the following decades. He was nothing more than a scapegoat.

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