Digging for the Spanish Flu


In late 1917 or 1918, a new strain of influenza appeared in what is now Ft. Riley, Kansas. There’s nothing unusual about that: new strains of influenza appear all the time. At first, this one seemed no worse than any other. But something changed. As this flu spread to the east, it became seven times more deadly than regular flu. Carried across the ocean by American troops heading for World War I, it eventually spread around the world. By the time the epidemic burned itself out, it had killed more than 20 million people worldwide. (In Philadelphia alone, in the third week of October, 1918, 4,600 people died of it.) It was more deadly than the War itself.

The experience of Arthur Lapointe of Mont-Joli Quebec was not that unusual. Lapointe, whose diaries are among the best French-language memoirs of the War, survived three years in the trenches, only to return home and learn that all seven of his brothers and sisters had died of the so-called “Spanish flu.”

Few places escaped the scourge. Longyearbyen, Norway, is a long way from anywhere: it’s located on Spitzbergen Island, only 800 kilometres from the North Pole. Nevertheless, in October, 1918, when the epidemic was at its peak, the chief engineer of a coal mine there recorded in his diary that six young miners, aged 18 to 29, died of Spanish flu and were buried together. In the last couple of weeks, an international team of scientists led by 31-year-old Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer at the University of Windsor, opened their graves. Their hope was to recover tissue samples from the frozen bodies, tissue samples that contain enough fragments of the Spanish flu virus to help us learn what made it so deadly–and present a similar epidemic in the future.

Influenza of any type is an infection of the respiratory tract. It generally lasts three to seven days, and its symptoms include fever, cough, and muscle aches. It’s sometimes followed by a period of weakness and depression.

Sometimes, influenza leads to secondary pneumonia, which can be fatal, especially in elderly people or people who are already ill. Generally speaking, though, young people take the ‘flu in stride and see it as little more than a nuisance.

They couldn’t do that with the Spanish flu, and that’s what made the death rate so high. The Spanish flu killed young people by the thousands. They suffered fever, chills, headache, malaise, muscle pain and pneumonia, leading rapidly to death.

After that epidemic, the Spanish flu vanished, and hasn’t been seen since. But that’s not much comfort. The trouble is, influenza viruses mutates all the time, changing its surface proteins in order to fool the immune system of its victims, which include birds and animals as well as humans. Normally, these minor mutations, called “drift,” just mean it takes our immune system a little longer to adjust, and we feel rotten for a few days. But every few decades, a completely new strain emerges from animals (scientists call that “shift”). In 1968 a new strain emerged and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Fear of a similar occurrence with the emergence of a new bird-based flu in Hong Kong earlier this year led to the wholesale slaughter of chickens.

We’re due for another major pandemic any time now. And that’s what made the stakes so high for the expedition to Longyearbyen.

Kirsty Duncan read the mining engineer’s diary five years ago, and began putting together the expedition, which eventually consisted of scientists from Canada, Britain, the United States and Norway. Their hope was that the miners had been buried six feet under the ground, deep in the permafrost layer, which would have kept the bodies frozen. Although they felt it was practically impossible that any viable virus could remain in the bodies, they still took elaborate precautions.

They erected an inflatable tent over the pit; scientists who entered had to go in through an air lock, wear isolation suits with outside air supplies and take an experimental anti-viral drug. They dug for a week, and succeeded in collecting samples from six of the seven bodies (the family of the seventh had refused permission for the exhumation, so it was left undisturbed). But they ran into what could be a major snag: instead of being buried six feet down, the bodies were only 10 to 12 inches under the rocky soil, which meant instead of being frozen year-round, they’d been subjected to freezing and thawing, and had decomposed considerably more than Duncan hoped. Nevertheless, Duncan said she was thrilled. “The aim of this project was retrieving soft tissue samples,” she said. “We recovered soft tissue samples.”

They attempted to dig deeper, thinking there might be a second layer of bodies under the first because their observations and surveys done last year with ground-penetrating radar indicated the pit was much deeper than the layer at which the body was buried. Unfortunately, seepage from the surrounding glaciers and the permafrost made it too dangerous to continue.

Now the samples they retrieved will go to laboratories in London and Washington. Again, the highest levels of safety precautions will be followed. First, scientists have to find out if any of the virus can be found in the samples. If it is, their next goal is to figure out the virus’s genetic composition. To do so, they will first have to make millions of copies of its genetic material; which means, if it isn’t completely inert (although, again, scientists are almost certain it will be), they’ll be increasing the risks of handling it. Within about 18 months, they hope to be able to answer some basic questions about Spanish flu: what strain of flu virus caused it (at this point, no one is sure), why was it so deadly, and can we successfully vaccinate against it if it recurs.

If and when the next deadly flu epidemic emerges, we may have much better tools to fight it; thanks in part to six young miners who died on an Arctic island 80 years ago.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1998/09/digging-for-the-spanish-flu/

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