An MRI image of a chest is seen in close up.Share on Pinterest
Da-kuk/Getty Images
  • Experts have been looking to past pandemics to help us understand what to expect from COVID-19.
  • An article in The New York Times brought up one pandemic, dubbed the “Russian flu.”
  • Experts say without clinical specimens it’s impossible to know if it was a coronavirus or influenza.

Since COVID-19 first appeared in 2019, epidemiologists have looked to past pandemics to glean some insights about how this one might pan out.

Scientists have studied the 1918 influenza pandemic, 2009 SARS crisis, Ebola, and other pandemic diseases to understand how human behaviors and viral characteristics might influence how pandemics ebb and flow.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article looking at an outbreak called the “Russian flu” that struck in the late 19th century, causing a pandemic that lasted 3 years and shut down schools, businesses, and factories.

According to the Times, some scientists suspect the Russian flu may have been caused by a coronavirus that could very well be circulating to this day.

But much of what we know about the Russian flu is speculation.

“This is history, and it will take a lot of work to turn it into science. Until and unless someone can read some of the genetic material from whatever caused the Russian flu, we can only speculate on its cause,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a professor of biology and chief virologist at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said experts always study major pandemics to understand the evolution of infectious diseases.

It’s unknown whether the Russian flu was caused by an influenza strain or a coronavirus, however, it would be helpful to know this to better understand how these viruses evolve over time.

“We don’t know a whole lot about the Russian flu because there are no clinical specimens available to determine the cause,” Adalja said.

The molecular tests that help us sequence and identify viruses were not available at the time.

To identify the type of virus behind the Russian flu, scientists would need viral genetic material that has somehow remained intact for over a century.

It is possible that human remains containing viral genetic material have been preserved in permafrost. This is how scientists were able to discover and identify the influenza virus that caused the flu pandemic in 1918.

But scientists haven’t yet discovered genetic material from the Russian flu.

“From the surviving accounts, it looks as though the Russian flu may have been an infectious disease, but beyond that, it’s impossible to say,” Neuman said.

Because we do not have that genetic material, it’s unknown if some descendant of the Russian flu circulates today.

“We know of hundreds of kinds of viruses and bacteria that can spread through the air and cause problems in the lungs, and without some genetic evidence, there is no way to tell which it could have been,” Neuman said.

There is a chance that the Russian flu is one of the seasonal coronaviruses — but that is merely speculation.

It’s also entirely plausible that the virus that caused the Russian flu is now extinct, according to Neuman.

Some scientists believe anecdotal reports from the 19th century suggest the Russian flu behaved more like a coronavirus than a flu strain.

“There are some suggestions that this pandemic behaves different than flu pandemics in that it really attacked older individuals and spared younger individuals; there are also some reports of loss of taste and smell,” Adalja said.

But because there are so many unknowns about the Russian flu, virologists say there aren’t really any learnings we can apply to this pandemic.

“I know a lot of people would take comfort from a story of a virus appearing and disappearing without human intervention, as a sign that COVID will do the same, but it is really not as easy as that,” Neuman said.

Every virus behaves differently.

Look at how different this coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — is from the original SARS, also a coronavirus, that circulated in 2002–2004.

“Even though the viruses are genetically very similar, their effects can be quite different,” Neuman said.

Additionally, we have tools now that we did not have in the late 1800s — tests, vaccines, antivirals — which can influence how a pandemic unfolds.

“We know zilch about the Russian flu, in terms of actionable genetic and molecular data,” Neuman said. “Until that changes, the Russian flu is an interesting story, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and neither is of any real use in dealing with COVID.”

Epidemiologists have looked to past pandemics to get insights into how this one might unfold. Now, some scientists are studying the “Russian flu” that struck in the 19th century and wondering whether it was caused by a coronavirus.

Virologists stress that very little is understood about the Russian flu, and until we have genetic material from that era, we won’t be able to determine what caused it and if it could help us understand how the COVID pandemic will play out.