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1918 Killer Flu Reconstructed

A flu virus that killed tens of millions worldwide after it appeared in 1918 has been recreated in the virological equivalent of the Jurassic Park story. Scientists rebuilt it from pieces of genetic material retrieved from the lungs of people who died 87 years ago. Researchers writing in the journals Science and Nature say the tightly guarded replica is even more virulent than they expected.

Yet public health officials aren't worried that the 1918 flu will again terrorize the population. It's no longer a new virus, and most people in the world have some immunity to the H1N1 virus family.

But scientists are interested in what it can reveal about future pandemics... and they say the copy of the 1918 flu bears an ominous resemblance to the bird flu virus now circulating in Asia. -- Richard Knox

A snapshot of what's known about the 1918 pandemic:

Name: The virus was at the time called the "Spanish Flu" by some. The label came from reports in the medical press that as many 8 million Spanish were killed by it in May 1918. The name is a misnomer, however, it's now thought that the 1918 flu originated in the United States.

Global Death Toll: Estimates range from 20 million to 100 million. Authors of the paper in this week's Nature say 50 million were killed in the pandemic.

Compared with Other Epidemics: The 1918 flu is thought to have killed the most people in the shortest amount of time. However, its spread was aided by modern ships and a world war that required moving huge armies quickly across the globe. The 14th-century's Black Death killed as many as 20 million in Europe alone over a period of two years. However, global population was much smaller, cities weren't as dense, and global transportation relied on wind and animal caravans; considering its high death toll, the bacteria that caused it may have been more deadly.

U.S. Death Toll: About 25 percent of the population was infected, with perhaps 650,000 people dying from the virus.

Symptoms: Normal flu symptoms of fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea. Many developed severe pneumonia attack. Dark spots would appear on the cheeks and patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance.

Origins: New research reconstructing the virus suggests it began in birds, then rapidly mutated, leaping to humans.

Ground Zero: Historian John Barry believes the virus made its jump to humans in Kansas. In February 1918, recruits from Haskell County, Kan., reported for duty to Fort Riley, 300 miles away. They were already sick with influenza. Several days after they arrived, flu broke out at the camp. From there it may have spread through the Army to Europe and the rest of the world. It returned to the U.S. in a more lethal form in September 1918, making its first appearance at the Army's Camp Devens, near Boston.

The Victims: Unlike the typical flu, where the highest mortality is in infants and the elderly, the 1918 flu also struck down young, healthy adults. The military, with its overcrowded camps and troops ships, was hit hard. Few were spared: President Woodrow Wilson became ill while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in early 1919 and had a slow recovery. -- Vikki Valentine

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.