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International research team led by RKI uncovers details on the 1918 pandemic flu virus

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest respiratory pandemic of the 20th century, killing 50 to 100 million. Now, an international research team from Robert Koch-Institute, University of Leuven, Charité Berlin and many others disclosed further details on the biology of the H1N1 flu virus behind. By investigating pathology museum specimens from Berlin Charité and the Narrenturm in Vienna, the team detected mutations in the genome that may have helped the virus even better adapt to the human host. They also found molecular evidence for frequent intercontinental spread of the virus and that virus lineages persisted during several pandemic waves from 1918 to 1919 – thwarting older hypothesis that the waves might have been caused by different lineages. The findings have been published at Nature Communications (“Archival influenza virus genomes from Europe reveal genomic variability during the 1918 pandemic”).

All knowledge about the 1918 flu virus has been obtained from only 18 archival specimens so far. The international research team now found three further specimens from Germany containing viral genetic material – one even allowed for the reconstruction of a complete genome, the first European genome. As the researchers point out, pathology museum specimens are an invaluable resource for modern research. It is crucial to maintain this resource for future generations. More viral genomes are needed to confirm and refine hypotheses and build a much better understanding of the 1918 influenza pandemic – and others – in order to be better prepared for the next.

Date: 11.05.2022