Killing Patient Zero: An unjustly accused 'villain' of the AIDS epidemic is finally vindicated

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

Many of us, gay and straight, are still haunted by the loss of loved ones during the ‘80s AIDS epidemic, and remember the rampant fear of the strange plague.

In the documentary Killing Patient Zero, Canadian director Laurie Lynd not only revisits the near-hysteria that surrounded a disease whose nature and contagion routes were largely unknown, but sets about vindicating one of the era’s biggest bogeymen.

Gaetan Dugas, the face of “Patient Zero.”

Gaetan Dugas, the face of “Patient Zero.”

In one the era’s greatest injustices to a single person, the myth of “Patient Zero” posited that an Air Canada steward named Gaétan Dugas was personally responsible for spreading the disease throughout North America. 

The film fleshes out Dugas’s life via his friends and traces the banal typo in a Centre for Disease Control report that led to the Patient Zero theory (an error accepted and given false credibility by author Randy Shilts of And the Band Played On fame). Dugas, it is proposed here, was an epidemiological hero, cooperatively providing the CDC with valuable early information about how AIDS spread. A fascinating study of “fake news” in the absence of facts. 

That Dugas was young, handsome and promiscuous is not at issue. Anybody who knew anybody who came out during the pre-AIDS era knows they generally leaped out of the closet and hit the ground running. Sex was a celebration, not quite of freedom from persecution yet, but of a lifestyle built on strength of numbers.

Killing Patient Zero works on three levels. It fleshes out the person we know only as a morbid figure of trivia from the era, interviewing his still affectionate co-workers at Air Canada, relatives and friends, with copious photos and footage from his days working flight routes. An apparently upbeat young man with a ready smile, he makes for an unlikely looking villain.

Lynd then sets about destroying the myth, following Dugas’ diagnosis and his willing interaction with the CDC. He interviews the CDC researcher who compiled and followed various cases, collating them by letter. (Dugas was “O,” which was interpreted obtusely as “zero” by the media).

We hear explanations as to why a single vector of contagion was pretty much impossible, given the latency period of the virus that turned out to be years in many cases. Again, the point is made by researchers that much of this information would have been slow in coming had not people like Dugas been cooperative providing contacts for various sex partners.

Finally, Killing Patient Zero is an uncomfortable reminder of an uncomfortable era. We are reminded of how many years then-President Reagan went without uttering the word AIDS (apparently, it only existed once his friend Rock Hudson contracted it). We hear a press conference where the President’s press secretary cracks a joke about AIDS and gets a nauseating laugh from the press corps.

And we meet activists from the time, and witness community meetings that turn into a cacophony of compassion, concern and frightened anger. 

These angry passions have subsided over time, with information and treatments that have rendered AIDS no longer the quick, horrific death sentence it once was. But it’s a reminder of how we react as a society to the unknown, especially when fuelled by the fire of ignorance and moral judgment. Those are still in our social DNA.

Killing Patient Zero. Directed by Laurie Lynd. Opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, July 26, 2019 with other Canadian cities to follow. Filmmaker Lynd will attend a post screening Q&A following the 6:00 p.m. screening on July 26.