How Will Covid-19 End? Looking For Clues, Scientists Examine ‘Russian Flu’


People who contracted the ‘Russian flu’ infection, reported symptoms like loss of taste and smell. This is strikingly similar to Covid-19 symptoms.

How Will Covid-19 End? Looking For Clues, Scientists Examine 'Russian Flu'

Covid-19 has caused millions of deaths across the world.

It’s been more than two years since the world has been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Since 2019, there have been successive waves of infection which had devastating effects on the population. Some of these waves proved to be more deadly in a few countries where Covid-19 infection caused a high number of fatalities and put strain on the healthcare infrastructure.

Since Covid-19 struck, the scientists across the world have been looking for examples to help them anticipate the future of the infectious disease. As part of this global effort, they are examining a respiratory illness that struck Russia more than 130 years ago.

Dubbed the “Russian flu”, this mystery illness may have been caused by a virus similar to SARS-COV-2, the scientists have claimed, as per a New York Times report.

The May 1889 disease swept across the world, overwhelming hospitals and killing the old with special ferocity. Schools and colleges were forced to close and those infected reported loss of taste and smell – much like today’s pandemic.

Drawing other parallels with more than a century old wave of infection, the scientists further told NYT that some of the patients who recovered reported a lingering exhaustion and the flu finally ended after three waves of infection.

This behaviour is leading to speculation among the scientific community that the ‘Russian flu’ was indeed caused by the coronavirus.

“I would say, maybe,” said Dr Tom Ewing of Virginia Tech, a historian who has studied the Russian flu. Others say that the present pandemic is expected to wind down in a similar fashion.

But some historians say there is no hard data to support the hypothesis. “There is very little, almost no hard data on the Russia flu pandemic,” Frank Snowden from Yale told the NYT.

Professor Marc Van Ranst from Belgium, an expert on coronaviruses, echoed similar sentiments but added that SARS-COV-2 could become a continuously circulating, or “endemic”, virus. Speaking to EU research and innovation magazine Horizon, he pointed towards the evolution of OC43, a coronavirus which may have jumped from from cows to humans in 1890 and causes severe cold.

Professor Ranst said that pandemics like the ‘Russian flu’ happened all the time “but we did not notice them”. He said at that time, the spread of infection took time due to less resources. But now, the studies have picked up pace and scientists are trying to learn from past experiences, he added.

There are other pandemics in the last 100 years, which the scientists are looking at to find clues to the end of Covid-19. One of those pandemics is from 1918, which waned after three waves of infection but the virus, H1N1, remained in circulation, in a less virulent form until 1957, when it disappeared.

Then H2N2 emerged. It was substantially different from H1N1 and caused a pandemic. That pattern repeated itself with H3N2 emerging in 1968.

But in 1977 H1N1 came back. Along with another virus, H3N2, they have been circulating ever since.

This is a mystery that the scientists are trying to solve, Dr David Morens, a flu researcher, told NYT.

The present wave of Covid-19 is led by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has been dubbed as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of its sub-variants too are under watch as the people navigate through a difficult third year of the pandemic.


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