Why the Spanish Flu is History’s Scariest Pandemic

The 1918 Influenza outbreak known as the Spanish Flu is history’s scariest pandemic.

The Spanish Flu is frightening because it brought down empires, led to military defeat, and disrupted the entire world. Along the way, the Spanish Flu killed around 50 million people and infected 500 million, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates.

The Spanish Flu was the popular nickname for the H1N1 virus. The press gave the 1918 H1N1 the name Spanish Flu because Spain’s King Alphonso XIII was an early victim, author Laura Spinney writes.

In Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World Spinney reveals that the Spanish Flu was far more destructive than most people assume. Some frightening realities of the Spanish Flu include:

The Spanish Flu led to German defeat in World War I

Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff; the second in command of the Imperial German Army, blamed Spanish Flu for Germany’s defeat in World War I.

To elaborate, Ludendorff thought Spanish Flu weakened the German Army by killing and weakening young soldiers. After the war, Ludendorff mused that his army could have been powerful enough to conquer Paris and win the war if the Flu had not weakened it, Spinney writes.

Thus, the Spanish Flu was partially responsible for the rise of Adolph Hitler, Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust. The defeat of Imperial Germany cleared the way for Hitler’s rise to power by discrediting traditional German leaders and institutions.

The Nazis came to power in a poor country that was devastated by war. Spanish Flu was partially responsible for the defeat that led to the devastation.

The Spanish Flu brought down several Empires

In addition to the German Empire, the Spanish Flu could have fatally weakened the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British, and Russian empires.

Notably, the inability of British authorities to deal with a horrendous Spanish Flu outbreak in India led to that country’s independence. To explain, many Indians lost whatever faith they had in Imperial authorities.

Furthermore, authorities had to turn to the independence movement to organize a pandemic response. That strengthened the Indian National Congress and laid the groundwork for independence in 1947.

Beyond empires, the Spanish Flu triggered political upheavals in many countries. For example, the incumbent Democratic Party suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in US history in 1920.

Republican Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) won 404 Electoral College Votes compared to 127 Electoral Votes for James M. Cox (D-Ohio). Moreover, Cox carried no states outside the Deep South in 1920.

The Democrats got off easy in comparison with Britain’s governing Liberal Party. The Liberal Party has not formed a government since the 1920s, instead Labour replaced the Liberals as Britain’s second party. Other chaos occurred in Italy, where Benito Mussolini’s Fascists overthrew the parliamentary government and organized a dictatorship in 1923.

We cannot tell how much of this chaos the Spanish Flu caused. Yet events such as Mussolini’s coup and the bloody Russian Civil War followed the Spanish Flu.

Spanish Flu attacks young and healthy people

The Spanish Flu devastated the German Army because it attacks young adults. The CDC reports H1N1 is highest among people between 20 and 25 years of age, in other words men of military age.

There was also a high mortality rate among people under 40. Hence, Spanish Flu killed many of the officers and non-commissioned officers armies rely upon to train, organize, and lead young soldiers.  Moreover, the Spanish Flu is is devastating to children under five years of age. Unlike most pandemics, Spanish Flu attacked the healthiest and most active people.

Frighteningly, Spanish Flu was also deadly to pregnant women, Spinney writes. A generation of children was not born in some countries because their mothers died before childbirth.

Nobody Knows Where Spanish Flu came From

The origin of the H1N1 virus is unknown. Scientists do not know where H1N1 came from or how it first infected humans.

One popular theory is that H1N1 came from a duck. To elaborate, the British built one of the largest military staging areas in human history at Etaples near the mouth of the Somme River in World War I. Hundreds of thousands of British Empire troops landed there on their way to the Western Front’s trenches.

Wild ducks, which are known carriers of influenza viruses, often land in the swamps and rivers in the area. One theory is that a duck spread H1N1 to some soldiers. A strong possibility is that hungry soldiers killed and ate a wild duck. Remember, duck tastes far better than field rations.

Spinney notes that British Army doctors reported treating soldiers for a respiratory illness they called purulent bronchitis in 1917. Spinney speculates that purulent bronchitis was the Spanish Flu a year before the pandemic.*

Thus a strong possibility is that wounded soldiers returning from the Western Front spread the Spanish Flu around the world. The “British Army” on the Western Front was a multinational force.

There were British, Irish, Indian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and South African troops fighting with the British. In addition, many American volunteers fought in His Majesty’s Army. Moreover, there were tens of thousands of Chinese laborers working in France to take the place of the men in the trenches.

Other potential sources of the Spanish Flu are in Camp Funston, a US Army base in Kansas and Shanshi China. Spinney notes Shanshi and Camp Funston are hundreds of miles from wetlands where ducks are found.

The source of Spanish Flu is unknown because scientists had no means of detecting or tracking viruses in 1918. They did not build the first electron microscope capable of viewing viruses until 1933. Instead, all scientists could do was guess at the flu’s source and try to stop it.

There could be no Vaccine for the Spanish Flu

There could no vaccine for the H1NI virus that causes the Spanish Flu. However, scientists are working on one.

Moderna Inc. (NASDAQ: MRNA) a company that makes COVID mRNA vaccines is working on a flu vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine will use the mRNA technology that powers a COVID-19 vaccine that is 94.1% effective create a flu vaccine.

The Washington Post claims that Moderna (MRNA) and BioNTech SE -ADR (NASDAQ: BNTX) could create mRNA vaccines for new flu strains in a few months. BioNTech is the German company that developed Pfizer-BioNTech (BNTX) COVID-19 vaccine that is around 95% effective.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said his company is developing a flu vaccine, The Post reports. Interestingly, Moderna’s flu vaccine could protect against both COVID-19 and the flu.

It is not clear if the Moderna vaccine could protect against the Spanish Flu. However, I imagine Moderna could develop a Spanish Flu vaccine fairly quickly.

The mRNA vaccines are more effective than traditional vaccines because they reprogram cells to create antibodies that will destroy viruses. Traditional vaccines use a dead virus to trigger an immune response.

All scientists and companies such as Moderna and BioNTech need to create a mRNA vaccine is the genetic data about a virus. Moderna and BioNTech used data about the COVID-19 scientists posted online to create their vaccines.

Notably, scientists have genetic data about the Spanish Flu.

 Scientists can recreate the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus in a laboratory

Researchers from the CDC, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory recreated the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus back in 2005.

The scientists found the virus frozen in the body of a woman from Bristol Bay, Alaska. The woman died of the influenza during the 1918 pandemic.

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus’s presence in laboratories is frightening because of the “Lab Leak Hypothesis.” The Lab Leak Hypothesis is the belief that the COVID-19 virus escaped from labs at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

The US State Department found evidence that an ailment that resembles COVID-19 infected several Wuhan Institute researchers in fall 2019, The Hill reports. Additionally, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believe the Lab Leak Theory is plausible.

Thus the Spanish Flu exists in laboratories and could escape at any time. In addition, some lunatic could set it loose.

However, we could have the technology to stop a second Spanish Flu pandemic: mRNA vaccines. Only future history will tell the world can escape a second Spanish Flu epidemic.

*SeePale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World  page 161 for details of this theory.