Was the 1889 “Russian Flu” a COVID Doppelganger?

And could a long-ago pandemic help us predict COVID’s course?

Prince “Eddy” the year before his death (Wikimedia Commons)

Prince Albert Victor — Prince Eddy to his family — was the dashing young grandson of Queen Victoria. He was only 28 years old in 1892, and he was second in line to the British throne. He’d just become engaged, and celebrated the new year with a shooting party in the countryside. He was the picture of youthful, noble vigor. Fourteen days after the shooting party, he was gasping for his last deaths as he died of pneumonia.

Eddy’s death was just one of many caused by the “Russian Flu,” which first appeared in 1889 and then swept across the planet, coming back in seasonal waves of infection over the next few years. The disease caused high fevers and terrible lung inflammation. Some of the infected complained that they could no longer taste or smell; in some cases, the disease affected many of their body’s systems, not just the lungs. Many patients suffered long-term symptoms, with the disease making it difficult for them to resume normal life for months, or even years. Weirdly, the disease killed the old much more than the young — children, usually the demographic most vulnerable to disease, seemed unaffected by it.

Sound familiar?

There might be a reason for that. The “Russian Flu” may not have been a flu at all. Some researchers are guessing that it may have been a coronavirus similar to the one that has caused so much suffering over the last two years, and that the fate of the 1889 pandemic might offer some clues to our future.

To be clear, the theory that the Russian Flu was a coronavirus is unproven, and we will likely never really know what caused the disease. The 1889 outbreak occupied a curious place in the history of the human relationship with disease. Medical science and communications technology were advanced enough that this pandemic was the first to be tracked in something like real time around the world.

We know when and where the pandemic started (Siberia, May 1889) and its path from there (across eastern Europe, into North America by January 1890, hitting remote New Zealand by May 1890). Doctors also understood the basics of disease transmission by this point; most no longer thought that illness came from “foul air.” We understand that the pandemic killed as many as a million people on a planet of 1.5 billion.

But we will never be able to definitively identify or analyze the pathogen that caused the pandemic. This is because the people who lived through it didn’t know what would help future scientists. After all, researchers only realized that there must be a category of life called “viruses” in 1892. Nobody saw a virus until the 1930s, when the electron microscope was invented. We don’t have any samples of the pathogen; nobody thought to keep them.

But it’s hard to ignore the parallels between our coronavirus outbreak and the events of 1889. First, the 1889 virus seems — just like our current foe — to have been deadly, but not so deadly that society united in order to defeat it. Many of the people who died had other medical problems that made them vulnerable to pneumonia, so it was hard to say what had killed them. Official death tolls varied. Many dismissed the disease and went on with their business. The New York Evening World concluded, “It is not deadly, not even necessarily dangerous, but it will afford a grand opportunity for the dealers to work off their surplus of bandanas.”

In other accounts, the disease sounds pretty terrible. Doctors, who saw the worst of the disease firsthand, understandably took it more seriously than some journalists. One British doctor described his patients’ symptoms, and it sounds rough:

The invasion is sudden; …with acute pains in the back … often accompanied by vertigo and nausea, and sometimes actual vomiting of bilious matter. There are pains in the limbs and general sense of aching all over; frontal headache of special severity; pains in the eyeballs, increased by the slightest movement of the eyes; shivering; general feeling of misery and weakness, and great depression of spirits, … weeping; nervous restlessness; inability to sleep, and occasionally delirium. In some cases catarrhal symptoms are observed… eyes are injected; sneezing and sore throat; and epistaxis, swelling of the parotid and submaxillary glands, tonsilitis, and spitting of bright blood from the pharynx may occur. There is a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night. …There is often tenderness of the spleen. The temperature is high at the onset (100° F. in mild cases to 105° F in severe cases).’

There’s more than just similarity in symptoms to suggest that the 1889 pandemic was a coronavirus. Well before COVID-19 came on the scene, Belgian researchers used genetic analysis to suggest that coronavirus OC43, which now causes some percentage of our routine common colds, diverged from bovine coronaviruses around 1890.

If it’s true that the 1889 pandemic was caused by a zoonotic coronavirus, its path may offer some insight into where we’re headed. The Russian Flu wreaked havoc
around the world for years and caused a lot of deaths. But eventually, it mutated, or perhaps human immune systems adapted to it. Now, it’s possible that a version of the virus that killed a million people in the late nineteenth century just causes runny noses and sneezes.

Most experts expect COVID to become endemic, and many expect that it will cause less severe disease as more of us get immunity and the virus continues to evolve. It’s possible — though by no means certain — that decades from now, the virus that causes COVID is responsible for the sniffles and little else, and that the devastation it caused is a distant memory, just like the 1889 pandemic.