The Cell That Started a Pandemic

1/14/2013 12:00 AM


In the early 1980s, epidemiologists were racing to understand a mysterious disease that was killing young men in California. As we now know, that disease was AIDS. And it soon grew into one of the biggest global pandemics in human history. But back in 1984, no one knew what it was, or how it was spreading. So the CDC commissioned a study to look at whether it might be sexually transmitted. And the results were startling--the data seemed to point to a figure at the center of the outbreak from which all the other cases radiated. A few years later, Randy Shilts published a formative book on AIDS called And the Band Played On, which, along with documenting the early history of AIDS in the US, revealed the name of the man at the center of that CDC study: Gaetan Dugas. Dugas was soon dubbed Patient Zero, and labeled by the media as the cause of the AIDS epidemic. But as this podcast explains, Dugas was absolutely not Patient Zero. Not by a long shot. Radiolab contributors search for a much earlier Patient Zero, by taking us to Africa, and turning back the clock on a series of virus mutations and pinpointing one fateful moment of cross-species spillover in a jungle in Cameroon, and taking a trip back even farther, to an intracellular instant that created a chimp Patient Zero hundreds of thousands of years ago