The gay man long accused of “starting AIDS” is finally off the hook

Gaetan Dugas did not launch HIV in the U.S., new research shows.

Gaetan Dugas did not launch HIV in the U.S., new research shows. Wikipedia

You may not have heard of Gaetan Dugas but you’ve likely heard what he’s long been called: “Patient Zero,” or the man who was so sexually promiscuous that he introduced HIV in the U.S.  In Randy Shilts’ landmark 1987 AIDS chronicle And the Band Played On, Dugas — a handsome French-Canadian flight attendant who died of AIDS in 1984 — is unflatteringly painted as the man who knowingly gave HIV to as many American gay men as possible in the early 1980s, unleashing the virus in major American cities.

But, as New York magazine’s Science of Us blog reports (via a story in Science magazine by longtime HIV/AIDS reporter Jon Cohen), new research shows that Dugas’ particular virus looks very different from versions of the virus that started circulating in the U.S. as early as 1970. Molecularly, Dugas’ virus looks much more like versions that were circulating much later on — and that the earliest versions of the virus in the U.S. are similar to those from Haiti.

This suggests that the first case(s) of HIV in the U.S. likely were from people who’d recently visited or come from that Haiti or nearby.

More than 30 years after Dugas’ death, this news is a sort of acquittal for a man who’d long been pinned as such a promiscuous sexual super-predator that he managed to seed HIV across the nation.

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