- On Sept. 19, 1918, an Army private destined
for the trenches of World War I France reported to the base hospital at
Camp Jackson, S.C. Although otherwise healthy, the 21-year-old complained
of chills, fever, headache, backache, and a cough. "Opinion: Influenza,"
a doctor noted in the medical record.
- Within a week, he was dead -- 1 of 21
million people worldwide who would succumb to the influenza pandemic of
1918. For almost a century, samples of the doughboy's lungs sat in a warehouse
run by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C.
Hidden in his tissues lay RNA bearing the solution to an enduring mystery,
the genetic code for the worst pandemic in human history.
- Now, for the first time, the killer has
been exhumed and fragments of its genes deciphered, say Jeffery K. Taubenberger
and his colleagues at AFIP.
- "This is not just a medical detective
story," Taubenberger says. "This could happen again. It would
be really useful to find out what happened in 1918 and apply that knowledge
to protect us against future outbreaks."
- "This is a tremendous advance,"
says virologist Robert Webster of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
in Memphis, Tenn. "The 1918 virus represents the ultimate disease-causing
agent -- in a sense it's like ebola gone mad. We need to understand as
much as possible about this virus because the world will get another pandemic,
maybe late in this century or early in the next."
- One pandemic was one too many. In the
1918 outbreak, nearly 700,000 people died in the United States. Historian
Alfred Crosby has written that Washington, D.C., seized two train cars
of coffins headed for Pittsburgh so that the capital's undertakers could
bury the dead.
- Taubenberger and his colleagues began
their search for the virus' genes by selecting at random 28 of the 70 pandemic
victims whose lung samples are stored at AFIP. Autopsy reports from 1918
disclosed that seven of these servicemen died soon after becoming ill,
enhancing the likelihood that lung tissues might contain intact bits of
RNA from the virus' unusual eight-strand genome.
- People who live longer are less likely
to harbor the virus, because the body's defenses eradicate the microbes,
Taubenberger says. In such cases, bacterial pneumonia delivers the fatal
blow. But in the seven servicemen who died quickly, the immune counterattack
might not have had time to wipe out the virus.
- The researchers drew a blank in six cases.
The private from Camp Jackson, however, was unusual. His left lung had
suffered extensive bacterial pneumonia, but his right lung had not. This
raised the possibility that the right lung might still harbor the virus.
To find out, the researchers removed some tissue from the paraffin in which
it was stored. Step by step, they broke it down until only RNA remained.
- "The people who preserved this tissue
never imagined what might be possible down the road," says team member
Ann H. Reid.
- Reid made millions of copies of nine
RNA fragments of five flu genes. Thomas G. Fanning of AFIP then deciphered
the sequences of the fragments and compared them to every other known sequence
of the flu gene.
- "It's unique," Taubenberger
says. The team has also confirmed prior evidence suggesting that the sequences
most closely resemble those from swine flu. Their report appears in the
March 21 Science.
- Researchers disagree on whether it will
be possible to rebuild the entire genome of the virus, perhaps yielding
clues to its spectacular virulence. Most agree that the work might permit
the making of a vaccine, if needed. "If this fossil were to reemerge,"
says Webster, "we could use this information to get a best-match vaccine
that would probably protect us quite well."
- Taubenberger, J.K., et al. 1997. Initial
genetic characterization of the 1918 "Spanish" influenza virus.
Science 275(March 21):1793.
- Further Readings:
- Crosby, A.W. America's Forgotten Pandemic.
1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Radetsky, P. 1991. The Invisible Invaders.
New York: Little, Brown.
- Dixon, B. 1994. Power Unseen. New York:
- Ann Reid Division of Molecular Pathology
Department of Cellular Pathology Armed Forces Institute of Pathology Washington,
- Jeffery Taubenberger Division of Molecular
Pathology Department of Cellular Pathology Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
Washington, DC 20306-6000
- Robert Webster Department of Virology
and Molecular Biology St. Jude Children's Research Hospital 332 N. Lauderdale
St. Memphis, TN 38105
- copyright 1997 Science Service