AIDS Patient Zero, Snoozing Swifts, and Self-Driving Deliveries

7:15 minutes

In 1981, AIDS was officially designated in the U.S., and the origin of the disease was attributed to a single person: “Patient Zero.” Reporting in the journal Nature this week, researchers analyzed 40-year-old blood samples to reconstruct the first entry of the disease into the country—and placed it about 10 years earlier. Amy Nordrum from IEEE Spectrum talks about this story and other science headlines from the week.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

In 1981, the CDC published a report describing a handful of patients who had a rare lung infection and a rare skin cancer. Those patients would turn out to be the first documented cases of AIDS, which actually wasn’t even called AIDS in those days. The disease was officially recognized later that year, and little was known about AIDS at the time.

But there was a patient zero pinpointed, the person who brought the disease into the country. Well, this week researchers reporting in the journal Nature say that patient zero may be a medical myth. Amy Nordrum is here to tell us that story and other selected short subjects in science. She’s an associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum and here with us in our CUNY studio. Welcome back.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about what did these researchers discover about the origin of AIDS in the US?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, what they actually did was they went back before that 1981 date when it was first recognized here in the United States. They looked for blood samples that had been collected for a different study on Hepatitis B in the 1970s. They found samples in New York and San Francisco.

Then they analyzed those to see if any of those patients were positive for HIV at that time. That helped them reconstruct the origins of the disease here in the US and formed some hypotheses about when it might have arrived. Through that analysis, they actually sequenced the full genomes of each of the viruses found in the samples, and they found out that it probably arrived in 1970, 1971.

And this really flipped the patient zero story on its head. The genetics of that particular patient’s HIV virus at that time did not at all lead to those later samples. It was much more just a genetically diverse virus at that time, and the patient was just one of many who actually had the virus and contracted it.

IRA FLATOW: So where did the idea that we had to have a patient zero come from?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there actually is some scientific reasons why you might try to find the very first patient or one of the first patients in an outbreak. It’s scientifically useful in a lot of ways.

In this particular research, they did find a CDC cluster analysis that had been done at that time trying to track patients who had gotten HIV and trace it back through its history on a person-to-person level. That particular patient identified a lot of other people that he was sexual partners with, and that helped to sort of round out his case for potentially playing a role in the spread of the disease. But the CDC was never definitive on it, and then the myth kind of got out of control.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I remember that year and covering that story, and it was just chaos in the medical community about what this was. No one knew anything about it.

AMY NORDRUM: It was a really scary time for all of these patients and also, I think, for those researchers and physicians who were dealing with it for the first time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on to the– this is kind of cute– the first self-driving delivery was made this month, and of course, it was a beer delivery, right?


IRA FLATOW: A beer truck, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Right. If you were on the road in Colorado last week, you may have been sharing it with a self-driving semi truck. This was done by a company called Otto that’s based out of San Francisco, which has been purchased by Uber. And they are branding it as sort of the first commercial delivery done by a self-driving truck in the US.

So the truck left Fort Collins, Colorado, and traveled about 120 miles to Colorado Springs. There was a driver on board. He was responsible for getting the truck onto the highway and off the highway, but once it was on the highway, he climbed in the back and read, or took a nap, or whatever. And the truck was able to remain in the lane, keep a safe distance from other vehicles, and make the journey all the way to Colorado Springs.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because highway driving is the easiest kind of driving. Anybody who drives through city traffic knows how difficult that is, but you’re on the highway.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s absolutely right. We’ve heard a lot about Uber and Ford and Google and other companies trying to create cars to carry pedestrians, but that’s a lot harder because you’re in the middle of the cities. There’s a lot of other traffic with pedestrians, and there’s a lot of other obstacles to avoid. But in this case, autonomous driving might be coming to the highways long before we see it on our city streets here.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a favorite whom you think will be the first?

AMY NORDRUM: Ford has said they’re going to do it as early as 2021, so that’s a pretty bold plan. We’ll have to see. Tesla, of course, has certain versions of semi-autonomous driving right now in some of their cars that they released.

IRA FLATOW: And speaking of trucks, they’re on the highways all the time, so that would make a big dent if you can get a self-driving truck.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right, and there’s actually a big shortage of truck drivers in the US right now, so this could be something that’s good for the industry.

IRA FLATOW: Your final story looks at some snoozing swifts. What is a– well, we know what snoozing is– but what is a swift? What do you mean by that?

AMY NORDRUM: The common swift is a tiny little bird that broke a really big world record this year. So it is about six inches long, and some researchers at Lund University in Sweden where it begins its migration– it flies all the way to Central and Western Africa each year and back– they put some little tiny backpacks onto the back of a couple of swifts, and they tracked it and discovered that these birds stay in flight for 10 months straight. That’s the longest amount of time spent constantly in the air of any bird that we know.

IRA FLATOW: Let we back that up a minute.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s rewind that tape. They’re in the air 10 months straight without stopping, without resting?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: How are they eating?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, they actually only eat in the air. They only eat aerial insects like moths and flies and things like that. So maybe it’s kind of great to just be flying around all the time. It’s a pretty energy intensive activity, but they end up doing a lot of gliding along the way on thermals. And then each night and each morning, they kind of rise up high to about 10,000 feet and start to kind of do a slow glide down. And they may be catching some snoozes in that time.

IRA FLATOW: So but they were monitored to see when they were sleeping with those little electronic backpacks on them?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, those were actually more to locate where they were around the world during their migration and then also whether they were in flight or not, whether they were upright or horizontal. Other studies of actually the frigate bird have implanted brain electrodes to actually study whether that bird was sleeping in flight, and they found that birds can sleep during flight. But the common swift is too tiny to put brain electrodes and hook up the necessary instruments to measure that right now to see if they’re actually sleeping in the air.

IRA FLATOW: But so they don’t know how long the birds were sleeping? They weren’t able to measure?

AMY NORDRUM: They don’t know that, but it’s likely that they’re probably catching some Zs while they’re coasting along.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, I’m trying to think of why a bird would be flying around for months at a time.

AMY NORDRUM: Well, why ever land if you could? If you’re tiny–

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

AMY NORDRUM: You’re shaped like a torpedo. You could just hang out up there all the time and eat insects, and maybe that’s actually a great life.

IRA FLATOW: How far are they from land? Are they out in the ocean? Are they flying around the continent, or where are they?

AMY NORDRUM: They’re flying over land, actually from Sweden and the UK down to the Congo in Africa. And at night, they’re flying about 10,000 feet above ground, so that’s pretty high.


AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so it keeps them away from plenty of other obstacles that they might otherwise run into if they are actually sleeping.

IRA FLATOW: Plus they’ve got to have a great oxygen system. The air is so thin up there.


IRA FLATOW: To fly all that time.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, they have to be extremely energy efficient. They’re very good flyers. I mean they have a 15-inch wingspan, which is pretty big for a little six-inch bird. And they’re shaped like a torpedo, so they’re amazing flyers. They’re very, very efficient.

IRA FLATOW: What an interesting story.


IRA FLATOW: Hey, guys, it’s OK to take a rest now. You can come down.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Join the rest of us.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Amy. Amy Nordrum is Associate Editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York.

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