Bioethics Blogs

The Trials of Patient O

By: Jennifer Cohen

In 1987, Harry Reasoner of 60 Minutes questioned Dr. Selma Dritz about her search in the early 1980s for the origins of the deadly outbreak of AIDS in the United States. “It was the whodunit of the century, and I was born nosy,” she tells him. The title of the 60 Minutes piece was “Patient Zero” who Mr. Reasoner explains “was a man – a central victim and victimizer” in the spread of AIDS.  Dr. Dritz, who had been the head of infectious diseases in the San Francisco branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recalled warning Patient Zero of the danger he posed to others. In her retelling, Mr. Dugas callously rebuffed her concerns, showed little remorse for infecting others, and concluded their interaction with “screw you.” Also interviewed was Randy Shilts whose book, And the Band Played On, identified Patient Zero as Gaëtan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant. Mr. Shilts explained that Mr. Dugas constituted what epidemiologists today call a superspreader – someone with unlimited ability to infect others and “speed this disease into every corner of America.”  The narrative of a villainous foreigner maliciously spreading a deadly epidemic culminated in an infamous New York Post headline condemning Mr. Dugas as “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS.”

The story unraveled upon closer inspection.  In 1984, the CDC had indeed identified a “Patient O” who had sexual connections with other AIDS patients, but the “O” stood for “Outside” California. Nowhere in the study is “Patient O” identified as “Patient Zero” — i.e.,

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