The popular history of HIV/AIDS describes a man known as Patient Zero, a sexually active flight attendant who traveled the globe and initiated the AIDS epidemic in North America. A new analysis of the viral genome recovered from his serum and that of other patients in the 1970s proves beyond a doubt that he was not Patient Zero (link to paper).
In a heroic effort, thousands of archived serum samples originally collected from cohorts of men who have sex with men in the 1970s in New York and San Francisco, were examined for the presence of HIV by western blot analysis. A total of 83 samples were found to be HIV positive and subjected to deep sequencing, but the viral RNA was degraded and present only in short pieces. To overcome this problem, many DNA primers were used to amplify short RNA fragments by PCR in a procedure colorfully called ‘jackhammering’. The impressive result is that complete HIV-1 coding sequences were obtained from 8 samples: 3 from San Francisco and 5 from New York City.
Analysis of the HIV genome sequences, and comparison with earlier and later data revealed that the virus likely traveled from Africa to the Caribbean around 1967, and from there to New York City in 1971. These results disprove previous ideas that HIV arrived in the Caribbean from the US.
Sequence analysis also reveals that New York City was a hub of early diversification of HIV, and that the epidemic was already mature and genetically diverse by the late 1970s. There appears to have been a single introduction of HIV into San Francisco from New York City in 1976. From those two cities the virus spread elsewhere in the US and overseas.
It has been suggested that a sexually active flight attendant, identified as Gaetan Dugas by Randy Shilts in his book And the Band Played On, was the source of the North American AIDS epidemic. Although at least one study years ago concluded that he was not the first case, this belief persists. Sequencing of HIV from this patient’s serum revealed that he was certainly not the first person in North America infected with this line of HIV-1 (Group M, subtype B) .
A historical reconstruction of the early days of AIDS in the US reveals how Dugas earned the label ‘Patient Zero’. CDC investigators who were studying a sexual network of 40 gay men placed one man at its center, whom they called ‘Patient O’, standing for ‘outside of California’ because he was Canadian (pictured; image credit). Upon publication of this work, the ‘O’ was misinterpreted as a zero and so began the belief that he was the origin of the AIDS outbreak in North America.