Chapter 9: From Alaska to Norway
In the period between 1996 and 1998, there were two dramatically different quests to find more of the 1918 flu virus’s genetic material. Not only did the quests have different degrees of success, they also sometimes clashed with each other.
The first started in 1996 and was led by Dr. Kirsty Duncan, a young Canadian geographer with a passion to locate the 1918 flu virus. Duncan used her knowledge of geography to surmise that the best chance of finding the virus was in the corpses of flu victims buried under permafrost in the Arctic region. Unlike Dr. Johan V. Hultin, the scientist who chose Alaska in the 1950s for a similar project, Dr. Duncan ended up zeroing in on the port town of Longyearbyen, Norway, located on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where the bodies of seven miners who died from the 1918 flu were buried.
Dr. Duncan reached out to doctors and scientists about the expedition, and experts such as Dr. Peter Lewin, a Toronto-based pediatrician and medical archaeologist, and Dr. John Oxford, a British virologist, showed interest. Dr. Duncan made her planned quest public, an announcement that generated much excitement in the international media and caught the attention of Dr. Taubenberger and Reid, who were still quietly working to recover the matrix gene of the 1918 flu virus.
When Dr. Taubenberger’s team published their findings in Science, the relevance of Dr. Duncan’s quest came under question. Why bother with an expensive mission, some wondered, when frozen lab tissue had yielded favorable results? Undeterred, Dr. Duncan pointed out that tissue from buried corpses may yield far better results than frozen tissue that had been soaking in formaldehyde for eighty years. Moreover, Dr. Taubenberger had managed to reconstruct only a partial sequence of genetic material, while Dr. Duncan hoped to sequence the virus completely.
After Dr. Cox arranged for Dr. Taubenberger and Dr. Duncan to meet, Dr. Taubenberger came around, stating that he would continue with his own research simultaneously. As Dr. Duncan prepared her expedition, Dr. Taubenberger and Reid tested another potentially promising sample of tissue, taken from the lungs of Private Vaughan, who died of the flu in New York in 1918.
Meanwhile, unknown to Dr. Duncan, the second quest for the virus in the Arctic found Dr. Taubenberger. Dr. Hultin wrote to Dr. Taubenberger to propose a second expedition to Brevig. The seventy-two-year-old Dr. Hultin was still convinced that Brevig held vital clues to the puzzle of the 1918 flu pandemic. Dr. Taubenberger began to plan an expedition with Dr. Hultin, which Dr. Hultin would undertake alone. Unlike Dr. Duncan’s planned exhumation, which had been in the works for four years, the Brevig mission took off within weeks. While Dr. Duncan had sought every permission from Norwegian authorities and the locals of Longyearbyen, the Eskimos of Brevig learned about Dr. Hultin’s plan only when he arrived in town.
In the cemetery, Dr. Hultin found one corpse—that of a thirty-year-old woman—that wasn’t in the same state of decomposition as others. Because the woman was obese, her body fat had served as protection against the thaw of permafrost. Soon, the woman’s samples were in Dr. Taubenberger’s lab; within a week, they yielded genetic material from the 1918 virus. Meanwhile, Dr. Taubenberger and Reid had also had success with the lung tissue of Private Vaughan.
Dr. Taubenberger and Dr. Hultin held off on making the Brevig findings public until they had approval from the people of Brevig. Dr. Taubenberger kept the mission secret from Dr. Duncan as well. The elaborate planning for...
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her own expedition was well underway and equipped with a radar that could detect bodies under permafrost.
Weeks before the Spitsbergen expedition was to commence, Dr. Taubenberger finally informed Dr. Duncan about Dr. Hultin’s Brevig mission, a revelation that left her feeling “devastated.” A week later, the people of Brevig gave Dr. Taubenberger permission to make Dr. Hultin’s expedition public. Dr. Duncan left for Spitsbergen on August 14, 1998.
In Spitsbergen, an enormous tent was constructed around the excavation site on top of a mountain. Dr. Duncan’s sixteen-member team lugged seventeen tons of equipment uphill. Every precaution was taken to protect the fragile Arctic soil, the local people, and the team members. But when the team began to drill into the ground, they found the coffins too soon, buried close to the surface, in the “active” layer of the permafrost that is prone to frequent thaws. Although the bodies were “quite putrefied,” according to Dr. Lewin, Dr. Duncan’s team did manage to get some samples of soft tissues.
At the time Kolata’s book is published in 1999, the findings from the Spitsbergen expedition are still unknown. What is clear is Dr. Duncan’s sense of hurt from the scientists whom she feels treated her badly in the process.
Chapter 10: Mysteries and Hypotheses
Though much headway has been made in reconstructing the 1918 flu virus, its origins are still shrouded in mystery. Explanations about its origin can be downright bizarre: for example, a 1998 documentary claims that the flu spread from the burning of pig manure near Fort Riley, Kansas.
A more interesting theory is propounded by Dr. John Oxford, the British virologist who was a part of Dr. Duncan’s Spitsbergen expedition. It was in the somber, evocative atmosphere of Spitsbergen that Dr. Oxford had an epiphany about the origins of the flu virus, based on observations that flu tends to “smolder” in populations for some time before snowballing into an epidemic. What if 1918 was not the first outbreak of the deadly flu? What if there had been undetected outbreaks in 1917 or 1916?
Dr. Oxford started researching medical literature for mentions of respiratory illness outbreaks leading up to the 1918 influenza pandemic. He found that in 1916 and 1917, doctors in British army camps outside London reported outbreaks of a respiratory disease that troops called catarrh. Soldiers’ lips and tongues turned blue from lack of oxygen (a condition called cyanosis), and the disease killed many.
Dr. Shortridge, meanwhile, proposes the theory that most influenza begins as bird flu and originates in southern China. Dr. Oxford agrees that this could be a reason the flu virus was in circulation in the years prior to 1918. Dr. Shortridge suggests that the virus was brought to Europe via Chinese laborers, who travelled to France during World War I to build trenches for the Allies. However, not all scientists agree with Dr. Oxford’s and Dr. Shortridge’s theories.
The second mystery around the 1918 pandemic is why it particularly killed people between twenty and forty years of age. Dr. Peter Palese of the microbiology department of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York says that almost all flu viruses behave similarly, affecting children least and young adults more than teens. However, the 1918 epidemic was atypically less virulent in those above forty, according to Dr. Palese, because they may have already been infected with the virus in previous years, thus gaining some immunity to it. Dr. Taubenberger believes there is a faint possibility that this previous immunity-providing infection could be the 1890 flu pandemic. People who contracted the 1890 virus could have had antibodies against the 1918 strain.
Though many questions remain around the 1918 influenza pandemic, isolation of its hemagglutinin protein has made it possible to build a vaccine for it. However, no one knows what the next “killer” flu will be like. Since viruses mutate so quickly and jump species easily, it is hard to make any predictions about the next pandemic. Perhaps while people “grow smug about influenza . . . a new plague is now gathering deadly force.”