The effort to find preserved samples of the 1918 influenza virus has been a pursuit of both historical and medical importance. The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most devastating single disease outbreak in modern history, and examining the virus that caused it may help prepare for, and possibly prevent, future pandemics. When the complete sequence of the 1918 virus was published in 2005, it represented a watershed event for influenza researchers worldwide.
In an article in the journal Antiviral Therapy, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, narrate the story of how scientists discovered samples of the 1918 strain in fixed autopsy tissues and in the body of a woman buried in the Alaskan permafrost. The article places this discovery in the context of decades of research into the cause of pandemic influenza, and the authors detail the strange convergence of events that allowed them to recover and sequence the virus in the first place. Its genetic material is so fragile that it should not have survived for days, let alone decades.
In a mass grave in a remote Inuit village near the town of Brevig Mission, a large Inuit woman lay buried under more than six feet of ice and dirt for more than 75 years. The permafrost plus the woman’s ample fat stores kept the virus in her lungs so well preserved that when a team of scientists exhumed her body in the late 1990s, they could recover enough viral RNA to sequence the 1918 strain in its entirety. This remarkable good fortune enabled these scientists to open a window onto a past pandemic–and perhaps gain a foothold for preventing a future one.