Last Reviewed on May 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
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 her own expedition was well underway and equipped with a radar that could detect bodies under permafrost.
Weeks before the Spitsbergen expedition...
(The entire section contains 1260 words.)
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