1918 flu victim may hold clues to outbreak
A VICTIM of the world’s worst flu epidemic is to be exhumed to help scientists trying to avert the spread of bird flu, it was revealed yesterday.
Scientists plan to remove lung samples from the body of 20-year-old Phyllis Burn, who was buried 85 years ago.
The army officer’s daughter, from Strawberry Hill, London, was one of 50 million people killed by a devastating strain of influenza that swept across the world in 1918.
Evidence points to the 1918 virus being a type of bird flu similar to the one which is now claiming human lives in Asia.
Scientists are desperate to know more about what caused the pandemic, in order to avoid another disaster on a similar scale.
The investigation leader, Professor John Oxford, from Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London, said: "The big question is: was there something special about this virus that enabled it to kill 50 million people, was there something special about the people that led them to die so quickly, or was it a combination of the two?
"No-one expects the 1918 virus to come back again, but there is the possibility of a new virus arising in the same way today."
Miss Burn was buried in a lead coffin, which, if properly sealed, would have been airtight.
Prof Oxford hopes that even after more than 80 years her internal organs will be sufficiently preserved to allow tissue samples to be taken from her lungs.
The scientists are looking for a "genetic footprint" - fragments of RNA - left by the 1918 virus that could yield important clues.
Prof Oxford said although he did not believe there was any way the virus could come back to life, his team was taking no chances.
The researchers would wear special containment suits as they extracted tissue samples from the body in situ. They would work within a tent erected over the grave.
Back at the laboratory, the first job would be to screen the samples for any sign of dangerous virus.
"I don’t think there is any chance of finding an infectious virus, but you never know," said Prof Oxford. "We are treading into the unknown a little bit."
Only a handful of samples from the 1918 pandemic exists in Britain and the United States. They consist of small lung "blocks" about half the size of a sugar cube.
Scientists have already managed to identify half a dozen of the virus’s genes. The clues point to an avian, or bird, virus - but not the same strain as the one currently worrying health officials in Vietnam and Thailand.
The 1918 virus was an H1 strain, whereas the virus responsible for the new outbreaks is categorised as H5.
In Vietnam, at least six people have been killed by the infection and two other cases have been confirmed.
The World Health Organisation said yesterday that two other deaths being investigated in Vietnam had been prematurely blamed on the virus.
At present, the bird virus does not seem capable of passing from person to person, as happened in the 1918 pandemic.
The greatest fear of experts is that it will genetically combine with normal human flu to produce an infection that can sweep through populations.
"That’s the Armageddon scenario - that the two will mix together," said Prof Oxford.
A key question that scientists want answered is whether such a combination triggered the 1918 pandemic.
Prof Oxford has spent a year clearing obstacles in the way of the exhumation, but believes he is now "95 per cent there".
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