Spanish Flu Mystery: Why Don’t Scientists Understand the 1918 Flu Even After Digging Up Its Victims?
Ninety-five years ago in the little town of Brevig Mission, Alaska, a deadly new virus called Spanish influenza struck quickly and brutally. It killed 90 percent of the town’s Inuit population, leaving scores of corpses that few survivors were willing to touch. The Alaskan territorial government hired gold miners from Nome to travel to flu-ravaged towns and bury the dead. The miners arrived in Brevig Mission shortly after the medical calamity, tossed the victims into a pit two meters deep, and covered them with permafrost.
The flu victims remained untouched until 1951, when a team of scientists dug up the bodies, cracked open four cadavers’ rib cages, scooped out chunks of their lungs, and studied the tissue in a lab. But they were unable to recover the virus and threw out the specimens. Nearly 50 years later, scientists dug up another victim from the same site, this time a better preserved, mostly frozen, obese woman, and successfully extracted viral RNA. In 2005, a team of scientists finally completed the project, sequencing the full genome of the viral RNA. But they still don’t know exactly why it caused the Spanish flu pandemic.
There’s no single reason why the deadliest pandemic in modern history is still mysterious. Scientists have pinpointed the origins of recent influenza outbreaks like swine flu and bird flu with relative ease, arming the international health community with an arsenal of tests and vaccines to fight back. And a flu virus isn’t particularly complex; it’s just a stretch of RNA transmitted between animals, human and nonhuman, that has evolved to mutate quickly enough to outpace any long-term immunity.