The “Spanish” influenza of 1918-1919, which killed at least 20 million people, was the most deadly pandemic in human history. To understand the pandemic’s origins and unusual virulence, Thomas Fanning at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC, isolated viral RNA from the laboratory-prepared tissue of a 1918 flu victim. By sequencing RNA fragments from the influenza virus, they found the virus was an H1N1 strain that could infect humans and swine, but not birds. In 2005, Dr. Fanning’s team successfully reconstructed the complete 1918 influenza virus genome, advancing the development of new flu vaccines and treatments.
Did you know? The 1918 “Spanish” flu was especially deadly to people 20 to 40 years old, decreasing the average U.S. life span by a full 10 years.