With COVID-19 Variants Emerging, History of 1918 Flu Repeats Itself

mutations lead to variants of novel coronavirus, much like the 1918 flu

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

New variants of COVID-19 could be more infectious than the original strain, The Wall Street Journal reported. These mutations and variations of the original virus help it avoid detection by the immune system or make it better at infecting us. Again, the 1918 flu offers historical precedent for the novel coronavirus.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.
During the 1918 flu in the United States, the second wave saw the most deaths of the three waves of the pandemic. Photo by Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine / Wikimedia / Public Domain

According to The Wall Street Journal, recent mutations in the novel coronavirus may be causing it to be more infectious than the strain that has come to dominate the pandemic so far. “As viruses replicate, they change, or mutate,” the article said. “Some mutations give these viral variants an edge, such as being able to latch on to and infect human cells. That’s what scientists think happened with the coronavirus variant that swept through the U.K. recently and which is now showing up in states across the U.S.”

The article adds that two other variants seen in South Africa and Brazil appear to make the virus stealthier and harder to be detected by the immune system.

The coronavirus has followed similar patterns to the 1918 flu, which is why experts have been studying the second wave of the 1918 flu for several months. Now that coronavirus variants have been confirmed, can we look again to the past for potential life-saving information?


Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. Dr. Fleury offered valuable insight into the 1918 flu.

Most relevant to today, the first wave of the 1918 flu was far less deadly than the second. It spread during the end of World War I, and out of thousands of infected soldiers at Camp Funston, just 38 died.

The second wave killed far more people who got infected. But why?

“The fact that survivors of the first wave of the flu had some immunity to later waves tells us that the second wave wasn’t an entirely new strain, but an altered form of the virus that caused the first wave,” Dr. Fleury said in a lecture produced by The Great Courses. “That re-energized strain might have experienced a mutation in its new host.”

Mutations are simply a change in genetic information, he said—a change in the recipe for how proteins are put together.

“Even a small change in the exterior antigens of a microbe can cause the immune system to fail to recognize it anymore.”

Variants and the Immune System

Dr. Fleury pointed out that virus mutations are a double-edged sword.

“While mutations provide the new variation that is essential for natural selection to work, they come with a cost,” he said. “It’s kind of like taking a hammer and throwing it into a jet engine—you might get incredibly lucky and change it for the better, but more often than not you’re going to break it.

“That means that as many as 99% of the newly created flu viruses are basically damaged; they can’t infect another cell. But that also means between 1,000 and 10,000 viruses from each infected cell can not only still infect other cells, but may now be even more lethal than it was before, and better able to hide from the immune system.”

Much is still unknown about the coronavirus variants, but health experts learn more every day—with historical precedent to guide them.

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.