Was the Russian flu ‘coronavirus’? What the 1890s pandemic tells us about how Covid could end

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The fourth wave of the pandemic, like the three before it, was marked by a dry cough, a severe headache and what one health correspondent described as “feverish malaise”. Soon, both the prime minister and the opposition leader were confined to hospital beds, and London hospitals were struggling.

The disease has affected strong police officers and Bank of England staff. At the wedding party, which was attended by 100 guests, it was reported that all but three were ill.

We could forgive you if you think this is a description of the latest omicron strain Covid-19. In fact, it details the severe wave of disease that swept London during the “Russian flu” pandemic of the 1890s. Russia has been blamed for the so-called flu because the first reported outbreak occurred in St. Petersburg in November 1889. Although some symptoms, such as fever, chills and pain, were flu-related, more and more scientists believe the Russian flu may actually be due to bovine coronavirus.

As with omicron, most infections were mild. But about one in a hundred cases has caused serious illness or death, especially in those with pre-existing health problems. Many complained of a “hard, dry cough of the paroxysmal type, the worst at night”.

While influenza is usually most fatal for infants and the elderly, with an U-shaped mortality graph by age, in the case of Russian influenza, the mortality curve was J-shaped, reflecting rising mortality in those over 60 years of age. . In other words, similar to Covid.

Russian flu has also been linked to inflammatory conditions and fatigue reminiscent of long Covid. Sir Morrell Mackenzie, a Victorian throat specialist, warned that the flu tends to “run up and down the nerve keyboard, causing disturbances and pain in various parts of the body with what appears to be an almost malicious whim”. Distinct neurological symptoms included intense headaches and shooting pains, and loss of taste and smell.

Four million people in England and Wales fell ill during the first wave in the winter of 1889-1890, and 27,000 excess deaths were recorded due to respiratory diseases. In the spring of 1891, there was a second, more severe wave, causing nearly 58,000 excess deaths. The winter of 1892 experienced a third wave, marked by a further 25,000 deaths. Taking into account the revival of 1893 and the fourth wave in 1895, it was estimated that at least 125,000 Britons died.

The parallels are striking. So if the Russian flu was caused by a coronavirus, what could this pandemic tell us about the likely development of Covid-19 and what we can learn from the Victorian experience living with recurring waves in the age before vaccines and antiviral drugs?

Interestingly, before the Russian flu came catastrophic outbreaks of highly contagious respiratory disease in cattle. This led to multiple weeds between 1870 and 1890 as farmers tried to prevent contamination of milk supplies. In the pre-cooling and pasteurization era, the only way to supply the growing urban population with fresh milk was to bring cows to city centers – a likely basis for interspecific transmission BCoV or bovine coronavirus. Thanks to the excellent molecular detective work of the Belgian virologist dr. We know that Marc Van Ranst from the University of Leuven is closely related to the human coronavirus OC43, with which he has a common ancestor around 1890 – which indicates that it was probably the first time he jumped from cattle to humans. The date coincides with the first reports of Russian flu.

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