Health Experts Seek COVID Lessons from Second Wave of 1918 Flu Pandemic

100-year-old pandemic may hold clues for avoiding unnecessary covid-19 deaths

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

History may prove to be a life-saving teacher for the novel coronavirus pandemic, CNN reported. The 1918 flu pandemic lasted nearly two years, beginning in spring 1918, killing tens of millions of people. What can we learn from the 1918 pandemic?

patients during 1918 flu pandemic
The 1918 flu pandemic was the deadliest pandemic in modern history, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. (Image: Shutterstock/Everett Collection)

According to CNN, many people are looking back to the 1918 flu pandemic to see what we can learn about preventing a deadly second wave of the coronavirus. “A majority of 1918 flu deaths occurred in the fall of 1918—the second, and worst, wave of the 1918 flu,” the article said. “Health experts expect COVID-19 infections to increase this winter because the virus that causes COVID-19 is a coronavirus, and other coronaviruses spread more during winter. In wintry, less humid air, virus-carrying particles can linger in the air longer.”

Despite the ominous-sounding nature of the second wave of the 1918 flu pandemic, science and medicine have taken great strides since then, including learning about that pandemic.

Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, who was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, taught a Great Courses lecture series on the microscopic world. This article contains material from that series.

Be Prepared

One of the best things we can do in the face of a pandemic is to be prepared for it. Dr. Fleury said that preparation starts with a better understanding of what made the 1918 flu virus so deadly. Unfortunately, due to the limited medical knowledge of the time, few samples of the virus were preserved. A fortunate, albeit grisly, alternative remains.

“The U.S. Army had preserved many samples of lung tissue from dead soldiers, soaking them in formaldehyde and encasing them in little squares of paraffin,” Dr. Fleury said. “In fact, the original orders to preserve tissues from deceased military personnel came from none other than Abraham Lincoln. Jeffrey Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, along with his colleague Ann Reid, began trying to isolate the virus from a scrap of lung tissue that they took from a young soldier.”

Taubenberger and Reid sought out the virus in the 1990s. At the same time, an anthropologist, geographer, and amateur virologist—Dr. Kirsty Duncan—believed that only bodies buried in permafrost could preserve the virus for so long. She hunted it down north of Norway.

In later years, a retired pathologist named Dr. Johan Hultin was inspired by their search and revisited a site in Alaska where he had tried and failed to find the virus intact nearly 50 years earlier, only to succeed in 1997.

Don’t Panic!

Studies have suggested that the 1918 flu was an H1N1 strain—an avian flu that spread to pigs and to humans. One of its most valuable lessons can come from a similar variant: the 1976 swine flu.

“Private David Lewis, a fresh recruit at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was the first to die of the flu; he collapsed in the middle of a five-mile hike,” Dr. Fleury said. “Flu had been spreading through the barracks for weeks, but no one up to that point had died from it. Only four of the many flu victims at Fort Dix had that unknown swine flu virus. Of those four, only Private Lewis died, but because the fatal flu turned out to be H1N1, it revived fears of the 1918 pandemic and that was enough to push the red panic button.”

Dr. Fleury said that the military released the story and the press jumped on it. The US Health Service then pushed a rushed and little-tested vaccine on the public and encouraged mass vaccination.

“Was it merely a coincidence or was the vaccine actually dangerous?” Dr. Fleury asked. “By May of 1980, over 3,917 lawsuits had been filed, seeking $3.5 billion in damages. Three hundred people died from the flu vaccine, according to the lawsuits, but only Private Lewis is known to have died of the flu.”

The 1976 vaccine could be seen as a tragic lesson of what can happen when a vaccine is released too quickly to a worried public before the vaccine is ready. Due to the researchers who studied the 1918 flu pandemic, scientists had information this year about disease transmissibility during a pandemic and how and when it would result in times of spikes in the number of coronavirus cases. And as the Northern Hemisphere heads into its first winter with the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the knowledge of best practices of hygiene and caution could continue to save lives.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

This article contains material taught by Dr. Bruce E. Fleury. Dr. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a BA from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an MA in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. His career as a college reference librarian led him to Tulane University, where he became head of the university library’s Science and Engineering Division. He went on to earn an MS and a PhD in Biology, both from Tulane.