It will begin with a feeling of depression and weariness. You will try to shake it off, pretend that it is nothing, but soon the symptoms will really start.
“A distressing headache and general soreness through the head, a feeling as though a hydraulic pressure was being brought to bear on the brain and crowding it into a compact mass, will be your first symptoms and you will try to soothe that headache with home remedies in vain.”
Then come the chills and the high fever, the days and nights when you doze but never actually sleep. Even after the fever fades, you have no appetite as “the most tempting food fails to gain your approbation” and “the body seems to be possessed of terrific pains, peculiar to this disease, while the arms and lower limbs will give evidence of numbness.”
At some point during the ordeal, you will come to the “realization that you have lost and disease is the conquerer.”
So warned a dire report in the Meriden Daily Republican on Jan. 18, 1890, written by an unnamed Connecticut journalist who had recently survived an outbreak of the so-called Russian flu.
This plague of yesteryear is believed to have started in May 1889, in Bukhara, a city in modern Uzbekistan. Due to Russia’s size and still somewhat limited railway system, the illness spread slowly over the next few months before arriving in St. Petersburg in the late fall. From this and other large Russian cities it was carried by modern railroads and steamships across the globe. In December it began tearing through most major European cities and had jumped to Connecticut and elsewhere in the U.S. by the end of the month.
As news of the virus spread across the globe, in areas that had not yet been touched, some people doubted it was real while others downplayed its dangers.
The virus would ultimately kill more than 1,000 Connecticut residents and more than 1 million people worldwide. As with the unfairly named Spanish flu of 1918 that would overshadow it 28 years later, looking back at the Russian flu today is eerie. Then as now, there were reports of overcrowded morgues, health care workers falling ill, factories having trouble staying open and even an overhyped quinine treatment (quinine is the natural compound that inspired the synthetic drug hydroxychloroquine).
But these repeating patterns of human behavior may not be the most significant similarity between then and now.
For generations, scientists were convinced the Russian flu was, as its name implies, a flu virus. However, there is mounting evidence that it may have been caused by a coronavirus. These now painfully familiar crown-encrusted viruses were first discovered in humans in the 1960s. Including SARS-Cov-2, there have been seven coronaviruses known to infect humans. The four most common strains cause a version of the common cold, and prior to the outbreak of SARS in 2002, deadly coronaviruses in humans were unknown.
But after SARS, researchers began to take a closer look at this class of viruses. In the early 2000s, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst and his team sequenced the genome of a coronavirus called OC43, which causes a variant of the common cold. Comparing its sequence with coronavirus strains found in animals, they concluded that it must have spread to humans from cattle or pigs. Calculating its mutation rates, they concluded the jump from these animals to humans likely occurred around 1890. It was before major culling operations of cattle occurred in Europe, potentially providing the perfect situation for a virus to jump species.
There are other reasons to suspect a coronavirus. London clinicians working in 1890 noted that patients had pulmonary and gastrointestinal troubles and noted “frequent complaints of racking pains in the head or in the limbs.”
In a recent book about the current pandemic, Apollo’s Arrow, Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a Yale professor, physician and sociologist, writes that “COVID-19 similarly shows these three clinical types of illness, with emphasis on the respiratory, gastrointestinal or musculoskeletal and neurological systems.” He notes that respiratory illness is the only one of those three symptoms commonly associated with influenza and that case fatalities from the Russian flu were linked to increasing age in a similar manner to today’s coronavirus.
If the 1890 virus was indeed caused by OC43, then it may serve as a potential model of how we can emerge from the current pandemic. The virus peaked in the winter of 1890 in Connecticut but continued to circulate and kill people across the globe for the next few years. Eventually, if the pandemic was caused by OC43, it evolved to be less deadly and our immune systems grew more skilled at recognizing it. “Since OC43 is so widespread, most people are exposed to it in childhood and are spared any serious illness,” Christakis writes. “Thereafter, if they are exposed to OC43 again later in life, the virus just causes a mild cold, if it causes anything, because the hosts have some memory immunity. That’s a stark difference from the situation now, as SARS-2 is having a field day in a wholly immunologically naive population.”
Christakis adds, “It’s possible that once we reach herd immunity in the coming years, people will simply be exposed to the SARS-2 virus as children, have a mild disease (most of the time!), get some immunity, and then avoid serious disease if they are re-exposed thereafter. Such a scenario is a quite possible eventual end to the story of SARS-2.”