Why was 1918 flu pandemic so deadly? New clues…

In 1918, as one global devastation in the shape of World War I came to an end, people around the world found themselves facing another deadly enemy, pandemic flu. The virus killed more than 50 million people, three times the number that fell in the Great War, and did this so much faster than any other illness in recorded history.

But why was that particular pandemic so deadly? Where did the virus come from and why was it so severe? These questions have dogged scientists ever since. Now, a new study led by the University of Arizona (UA) may have solved the mystery…

They hope the study not only offers some new clues about the deadliness of the 1918 pandemic, but will also help improve strategies for vaccination and pandemic prevention, as Prof. Worobey explains:

“If our model is correct, then current medical interventions, especially antibiotics and vaccines, against several pneumonia-causing bacteria, could be expected to dramatically reduce mortality, if we were faced today with a similar set of pandemic ingredients…”

Researchers reconstructed the origins of the 1918 pandemic virus, the classic swine flu and the postpandemic seasonal H1N1 flu virus lineage that circulated between 1918 and 1957, to find out why the 1918 pandemic was so deadly…

For their investigation, the researchers developed an unprecedentedly accurate “molecular clock,” a technique that looks at the rate at which mutations build up in given stretches of DNA over time…

Prof. Worobey and his team used their molecular clock to reconstruct the origins of the 1918 pandemic virus, the classic swine flu and the postpandemic seasonal H1N1 flu virus lineage that circulated between 1918 and 1957…

They found that a human H1 virus that had been circulating among humans since around 1900 picked up genetic material from a bird flu virus just before 1918 and this became the deadly pandemic strain.

Exposure to previous strains of flu virus does offer some protection to new strains. This is because the immune system reacts to proteins on the surface of the virus and makes antibodies that are summoned the next time a similar virus tries to infect the body.

But the further away the new strain is genetically from the ones the body has previously been exposed to, the more different the surface proteins, the less effective the antibodies and the more likely that infection will take hold.

Prof. Worobey notes…”We believe that the mismatch between antibodies trained to H3 virus protein and the H1 protein of the 1918 virus may have resulted in the heightened mortality in the age group that happened to be in their late 20s during the pandemic.”

He says their finding may also help explain differences in patterns of mortality between seasonal flu and the deadly H5N1 and H7N9 bird flu viruses.

The authors suggest perhaps immunization strategies that mimic the often impressive protection that early childhood exposure provides could dramatically reduce deaths from seasonal and new flu strains.

Biologists of this calibre are walking encyclopedias of science, history, chemistry and the knowledge to assemble it all within the guidance of evolution into a unique illuminating dialectic.

It is a delight to stand inside the cone of enlightenment made possible by dedication to science, the addition of something of value to human understanding.

OTOH, you may spend your spare time watching reality TV. 🙂

Thanks, Mike

5 thoughts on “Why was 1918 flu pandemic so deadly? New clues…

  1. Mike says:

    An Aunt who survived the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ told me that in her town (Evanston, IL) some of it’s victims went to bed at night without showing any symptoms and “woke up dead” the next morning.

  2. Them™ says:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” (opening lines) 1928

  3. Doc says:

    Report For Defense Department Ranks Top Threats From ‘Synthetic Biology’ https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/19/621350272/report-for-defense-department-ranks-top-threats-from-synthetic-biology “”What people don’t think about very often is the potential for an engineered organism to become an epidemic or even a pandemic. One of the goals of this exercise was to show that an engineered organism could be the cause of something that we are not really preparing for,” says Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins center. “What we wanted to show in the exercise was that there are different ways of getting to a pandemic. And we need to be prepared for all of them.”

  4. Santayana says:

    The most severe pandemic in recent history, killing some 50 million people worldwide, the Spanish influenza, may have emerged up to two years earlier than previously believed. And, according to a new and influential study, its early manifestation was ignored at the time as a “minor infection”.
    It is believed that, if doctors had recognized that influenza was the cause of an illness which was killing soldiers in Etaples, France, and Aldershot, England, in 1916, scientists would then have had better grounds to embark on a two-year vaccination programme and some of the worst effects of the Spanish influenza could have been avoided. Such are the findings of a new paper, launched by Professor John S. Oxford, the UK’s top expert on influenza, and Douglas Gill, a military historian.
    Published in Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, the study uses modern day scientific technology and delves through literature published in The Lancet from the time, to not only track the origins of the virus, but to seek how we can use this information to learn from the past to prevent the spread of an influenza pandemic. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/tfg-sfm052119.php

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