THE SS Talune carried no troops when it docked in Western Samoa on November 7, 1918 – four days before the end of the Great War.
But the passenger steamship’s voyage from New Zealand to the remote pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Nauru, is remembered as one of the deadliest in history.
By December 31, 1918, an estimated 20% of Western Samoans had been wiped out by the so-called Spanish flu that would go on to claim four times more casualties than the entire First World War – an estimated 100 million.
Tonga also saw 10% of its population felled as Talune crewmen infected in New Zealand spread the influenza to cultures with even less resistance to the viruses than in the Old World.
The death toll was particularly devastating due to Pacific island customs requiring whole families to gather around the sick.
Scientists have been painstakingly reconstructing this pandemic, even recovering infected lung tissue from an Inuit victim preserved in Alaskan permafrost, to figure out what happened and what we can do to stop it happening again.
Fast-forward 100 years, and it’s clear a virologist’s worst nightmare has landed upon us.
But what can we learn from this largely forgotten pandemic?
Aside from laying the foundation of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the discovery of the virus and the invention of life-saving vaccines, the research hours into Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 (A/H1N1) carry important lessons for us all.
DID YOU KNOW?
The 1918 pandemic is known in English as the ‘Spanish flu’ despite the influenza claiming heavier death tolls in the USA, Portugal and Italy.
The nickname is due to Spain’s neutral status during the First World War, allowing its press to report on the spread freely.
While most wartime governments actively suppressed news of the deadly influenza, to protect public morale which would have sunk as the disease mostly killed men aged 20-40.
While the USA had up to 675,000 deaths, newspaper reports suggested that the epidemic was not expected to hit hard.
Spain’s press freedom, however, gave a distorted impression the country was the worst hit.
While former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and US president Woodrow Wilson, both fell ill, the flu is best remembered for infecting Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, which was widely reported.
A Tale of Two Samoas
While Western Samoa recorded the worst death rate for any country in the 1918 pandemic, the islands of American Samoa just next door registered zero Spanish flu deaths.
This detail is attributed to the USA territory’s Naval Governor, John Martin Poyer, who heard reports of a deadly pandemic on the radio and immediately imposed a maritime quarantine.
Researchers in 2008 later scoured archival documents, concluding that the confinement measures were ‘successful’ in excluding the influenza.
Similar comparisons have been drawn between American cities that responded in wildly different ways as the second wave of the pandemic hit the continent in September 1918 (the first wave has been variously reported as arising in China, Kansas and Europe’s Western Front in March 1918).
American pandemic expert John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, has drawn parallels in particular with Philadelphia – which held a 200,000-strong Liberty Loan parade in September – and cities like St Louis – which went into immediate lockdown, closing schools and business.
“The Liberty parade went forward and, roughly 48 hours later, the disease exploded in Philadelphia. They ended up with about 14,500 deaths,” Barry revealed to the New Yorker in March.
“St Louis, however, imposed all sorts of social distancing measures and had a much better outcome – they did, in fact, flatten the curve.”
Most interestingly for us living under strict confinement as Europe battles the COVID-19 pandemic, is that the Spanish flu did arrive in American Samoa in 1920 – and yet no one is known to have died.
The Varying Virus
The Spanish flu pandemic disappeared by 1920 – but it did not sleep.
In 2009, nearly the exact same H1N1 strain resurrected as the cause of the swine flu pandemic that killed an estimated 150,000 to 575,000 people globally.
Scientists investigating the Spanish flu have therefore been bugged by the question: what makes a virus more deadly than others?
The original H1N1 virus is thought to have developed in birds, acquiring mutations that human immune systems had not fought for decades, if ever.
As the Spanish flu came back to attack in four known waves, it eventually became part of the regular human-borne winter influenza that carries lower death rates and, more recently, can be vaccinated against.
DID YOU KNOW?
The novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is believed to have originated at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China. A reported 28 of the first 41 patients in China were said to have visited there.
Peter Li, associate professor at the University of Houston Downtown, said animals likely passed diseases through ‘pus, blood and excrement’ dropping down onto stacked cages below.
The Chinese government has now banned the wildlife trade and shut down thousands of wet markets since the outbreak.
One of the leading studies on the origin of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic also places the blame of the virus on human-animal interaction in poor hygiene conditions.
British virologist John Oxford claimed the military and hospital camp at Etaples in France, through which 100,000 soldiers passed each day, was worst hit due to a piggery and the import of poultry from the surrounding areas.
In 1999, Oxford’s research was published saying the virus jumped from birds to the pigs before decimating troops on the frontline during the Spanish flu’s first wave.
“It’s not good for the virus to kill the host as soon as it infects it, because that host has less chance of passing the virus on to other people,” British virologist Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, revealed in 2018.
This is why the 2009 swine flu pandemic was more potent than toned-down winter influenza in previous years: it was a virus adapted to infect pigs, not humans with a distinct immune system.
These lessons are of incredible importance to us in our fight against COVID-19.
The pandemic researcher John Barry, in the aforementioned interview with the New Yorker, concluded ‘the coronavirus’ is now stuck with us ‘forever’.
“I would expect to see waves of this: a second wave, and then less and less,” he said.
The coronavirus is currently deadly because it is believed to have jumped to humans from an unlikely source – bats or pangolins, scientists believe – for which our immune systems have little precedence.
This helps to explain its lethality, and should inform governments across the world to control for further outbreaks until the virus tones down, or we develop a vaccine.
When the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic hit, we did not even know what a virus was, and still authorities succeeded with public policies of confinement.
New Zealand’s government apologised to Samoa in 2002 for its mismanagement of the SS Talune incident – with the benefit of this hindsight and an additional mountain of scientific research, governments no longer have the excuse that they didn’t see a disaster coming.