Catching up with the killer

Published: Thursday 15 August 1996

What is commonly known as Spanish flu, caused one of the deadliest epidemics to be recorded in history. The 1918 pandemic -- that had claimed 20 million lives -- was the handiwork of a virus. Despite the havoc it had wreaked, there were no samples of the virus.

Recently, an international team led by Kirsty Duncan, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, has obtained the permission to dig up the corpses of seven coal miners -- victims of the epidemic -- who had been buried in simple wood coffins with no embalming fluid, in the frozen subsoil of Arctic Islands.

Duncan believes that the frozen bodies carry a unique strain of the influenza virus responsible for the devastation. Researchers hope that by securing the virus, they would be able to develop new vaccines designed to combat the flu, it it were to strike again, sometime in future.

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