Jim de Bree | The Mysterious Case of the Russian Flu

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

Over the past several weeks I have been studying the Russian Flu pandemic, which started in 1889 and lasted several years. Until 2005, the pandemic was considered to be influenza. 

Although there still is a considerable amount of information supporting that hypothesis, new evidence has emerged proposing a different conclusion. Studies conducted over the past 15 years suggest that the contagion was a coronavirus. 

We can learn a lot about our current situation by re-examining the Russian Flu. 

Computer technology has allowed scientists to parse data in ways not previously possible and has provided some provocative analyses. After the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, virologists started studying coronaviruses in more detail. 

One of the first post-SARS studies, published in 2005, addresses OC-43, one of the coronaviruses responsible for the common cold today. The OC-43 virus is a close genetic match to a virus that causes respiratory disease in cattle.  

Between 1870 and 1890, a bovine virus causing respiratory disease infected herds of cattle in the central Asian regions of the Russian Empire. 

In response, local farmers spent many years destroying cattle in an attempt to stop the spread of the bovine disease. 

Sometime around 1889, it is suspected that a zoonotic transfer to humans transpired when farmers were in close contact with infected cattle. Using a “molecular clock” analysis, which analyzes the mutation rate of biomolecules, virologists concluded that the OC-43 virus and a contemporary bovine coronavirus had a common ancestor around 1890. 

The Russian flu originated in rural areas of central Asia in the spring of 1889. By November 1889, it had spread to St. Petersburg. Within the ensuing year, the disease spread around the world. 

It is not clear how many people were infected, but it is estimated that a million people perished from the disease between 1889 and 1890. The Russian Flu lingered in England until 1892 with four distinct waves. By some accounts, people in England were still getting sick from it as late as 1895. 

The disease continued to manifest itself elsewhere throughout the late 1890s. 

Another study, completed last December, performed a linguistic analysis of digitized British newspaper articles from the early 1890s. That study showed that the symptoms of the Russian flu described in those articles were closer to those of our current COVID-19 pandemic than the symptoms typically exhibited by those suffering from influenza. 

For example, those infected complained of severe respiratory difficulties, and central nervous system conditions, such as the loss of smell. Unlike most influenza, the Russian Flu was apparently more lethal for older people in initial waves before spreading its lethality to younger people.  

In the late 1950s scientists took blood samples from people who were infected with the Spanish Flu 40 years earlier and were able to ascertain that they had antibodies for that particular strain of influenza. Unfortunately, by then, most of the people who were infected with the Russian Flu were no longer living and there is no comparable information for them, so we cannot definitively determine the Russian Flu’s antigen. 

Although there is conflicting data as to whether the Russian Flu was influenza or a coronavirus, the evidence is undisputed that it took four to seven years to ameliorate the disease through herd immunity. There were no vaccinations in those days and medical treatment was nowhere near what we have today. 

The Russian Flu virus eventually mutated into variants that are less lethal, but that process took years. 

This makes sense because a virus that kills off its host has to either jump to another host species to sustain itself or become less lethal to the host. If the Russian Flu was, in fact, caused by the OC-43 virus as some scientists suspect, the resolution of the Russian Flu pandemic may afford insight as to how best to deal with the current pandemic.  

Today’s biotechnology knowledge base affords us an opportunity to address viral infections in a way that was not possible just a few years ago. 

Contemporary computer technology allows us to study the evolution of viruses, which promises to further our understanding of how to combat both future pandemics and common diseases. 

So, when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we really do not need to endure the hardships experienced in the late 19th century, because we have the ability to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. 

Whether we collectively have the will to do so, or whether the pandemic drags on (possibly for years like the Russian Flu did), remains to be seen. 

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident. The materials researched in connection with the preparation of this column are available online through the use of routine search engines. Mr. de Bree is not a medical professional and the views expressed herein are his personal views as a lay person.

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