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TRACKING THE KILLER FLU VIRUS

"'9 June, 1918. In the trench, wrecked by last night's bombardment, all is quiet now; the artillery is taking a rest . . . A dozen conscripts were killed last night, their first night in the line. They are lying in a corner of the trench now, waiting to be moved to the rear for burial."

Arthur Lapointe, whose diaries are among the best French-language memoirs of the First World War, was a lucky man. He served three years in the trenches, and survived the war without a scratch. Then he went home to Mont-Joli, Quebec -- and learned that all seven of his brothers and sisters had died of the Spanish influenza the month before.

Eleven million people were killed in the First World War. Between 20 million and 40 million were killed by the Spanish flu in the autumn of 1918, and we have no assurance that the same thing could not happen again tomorrow. So at Longyearbyen, in far northern Norway, they are opening up a frozen mass grave to see if they can find and identify the virus that did the killing.

"If we know the genetic structure of the virus, it can help us produce a vaccine," explained Dr. Tom Bergan of Oslo University.

He added, "There is no chance in the world that there is a viable virus in there." Nevertheless, the excavation is taking place under strict containment rules: an air-tight, inflatable tent has been erected over the pit, and the scientists who enter through the air-lock wear "space suits" with an outside air supply.

The three-week operation, which began on Aug. 18, aims to recover tissue samples from six Norwegian coal-miners who died of the Spanish flu in October 1918. It is a triumph of medical detective work, for until now scientists had virtually given up hope of learning just what the 1918 virus was. Previous attempts to find remnants of it in Icelandic and Alaskan graves had produced disappointing results: The ground was too warm, and few traces of the virus survived.

Five years ago, however, Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer at the University of Windsor in Ontario, discovered the 1918 diary of the chief engineer at the coal-mine on Spitzbergen Island, a glacier-covered Norwegian territory only 500 miles from the North Pole. It recorded the deaths of seven miners from the Spanish flu, and their burial at Longyearbyen.

It will be 18 months before laboratory analysis of tissue samples from the miners yields a clear picture of the genetic structure of the 1918 virus, even if the team does recover it successfully. But already two conclusions seem likely: that it was a "shift" rather than a "drift" version of the influenza virus, and that it had the ability to attack the entire body, not just the respiratory system.

The influenza virus, which affects birds and animals as well as humans, has the knack of changing its surface proteins in order to fool their immune systems. Normally, these are minor mutations, occurring by a process known as "drift" -- and since most people have been exposed to similar strains before, we just feel rotten for a few days while our immune systems learn to deal with the new version.

But sometimes, we are faced with a much bigger problem: "shift." "Every few decades," explained Sir John Skehel of London's National Institute of Medical Research, "a completely new strain emerges. These emerge from animals, usually birds. The last time that happened was in 1968, when hundreds of thousands of people died in the resulting pandemic. Unfortunately, we are due for another major pandemic any time now."

So it's good news that scientists are starting to learn what makes some flu viruses so deadly. Two virologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have identified a flu virus that is able to infect any cell in the body, a strain that first appeared in the late 1920s and is thought to be closely related to the 1918 killer. Now the Wisconsin team has identified the surface protein that enables this particular strain to enter and infect cells throughout the body.

If the Longyearbyen team can reconstruct the Spanish flu virus, and if its trick was the same one that the Wisconsin researchers have identified in its 1920s relative, then we may never have to face another flu epidemic like the one in 1918. Otherwise, we are living on borrowed time.