The "Spanish" flu killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919. Hoping to prevent such a deadly outbreak from recurring, scientists have long strived to figure out what characteristics differentiate that strain from other, more-benign varieties. Because researchers have lacked live samples of the killer virus, however, they couldn't answer this pivotal question.
Two new studies now shed unprecedented light on the 1918 strain.
The first study caps a 9-year effort led by Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., to attain a complete genome sequence for the 1918 strain (SN: 3/22/97, p. 172: http://www.sciencenews.org/pages/sn_arc97/3_22_97/fob1.htm). Taubenberger and his colleagues collected virus particles from samples that had been preserved after autopsies of 1918-flu casualties and from a single additional victim interred in the Alaskan permafrost.
The virus had long since degraded in