Forgotten To History, A Late 19th Century Pandemic May Have Been A Coronavirus. Here’s What Happened
Since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we’ve been learning a lot about past pandemics and how they affected humanity and everyday life.
Most of the pandemics we’ve heard about were due to influenza viruses. Flu viruses are different than coronaviruses, virologists I’ve spoken to explain to me. The flu tends to mutate more quickly and is often seasonal, not spreading as efficiently in warmer weather, while coronaviruses are often not seasonal, tend to be more contagious and don’t mutual quickly. That makes this pandemic a bit different than the 1918 Spanish Flu or the 1967 Hong Kong Flu or even the only pandemic most of us have lived through – the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic.
There hasn’t been any discussion of past pandemics due to coronaviruses, but it’s likely one or more existed at some point in history. Besides COVID-19, there are six other known coronaviruses that infect humans: SARS, the virus that nearly caused a pandemic in 2002-2003 and is closely related to COVID-19 (Medical experts termed COVID-19, SARS-COVID2 and SARS, SARS-COVID1, because of how closely related they are); MERS, which stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus, that caused outbreaks in the mid 2010s in Saudi Arabia and South Korea; and the other four, HKU1, NL63, 229E and OC43. I have no idea why they’re called that, but they do circulate in the human population and cause about 15-20 percent of common colds. Most of us have probably been infected by one or all of them at some point in our lives.
But if SARS-COVID2 entered the human population in a deadly disruptive pandemic, did the others? Maybe, and possibly more recent than we think.
The 1889-1890 “Russian Flu” pandemic, which has been referenced several times in comparison to the current pandemic, may have actually not been a flu at all. Some scientists believe it was how one of the coronaviruses, OC43, first entered the human population. It was first suggested that the pandemic may been caused by a coronavirus decades ago, but since the COVID-19 Pandemic, two Danish academics, Lone Simonsen and Anders Gorm Pedersen, in a study that’s still being peer reviewed, found some compelling evidence to support the theory. Most notably, they were able to trace the history of Coronavirus OC43 to its closet relative, the bovine coronavirus and found that OC43 likely split from bovine coronavirus and began infecting humans sometime in the late 1880s and early 1890s, which would coincide with the Russian Flu Pandemic. The scientists also found that the symptoms associated with the 1889-1890 Pandemic were similar to COVID-19, and the pattern of mortality, largely concentrated in the elderly population, makes it dissimilar to flus, which often kill children in large numbers, as well as the elderly. Another factor was that many sickened with the “Russian Flu” suffered nervous system and neurological damage, which is not common with flus, but as we’ve seen is common with COVID-19.
Even though more than a million died worldwide (the population of the Earth at the time being `1.2 billion, that would equal about 7 million deaths today), the 1889-1890 pandemic has kind of been lost to history, but several major historical events can directly be tired to its aftermath. The Russian Revolution, World War I, the rise of Populism in the late 19th Century and the labor movement, along with the social and economic reforms it led to, and the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II, can be traced back to the residual effects of the pandemic. Even the seeds of the Spanish Civil War, which occurred nearly half a century after the pandemic, were planted during the outbreak.
The 1889-1890 pandemic began in Russia, probably in modern day Uzbekistan. It struck Central Asia with a vengeance – killing entire towns and thousands in cities. It remained in Russia for most of 1889 and that’s where it hit the hardest. Another piece of evidence that it may have been a coronavirus was the fact that it spread wildly through Russia in the summer, notably in warmer Southern Russia, which is uncommon with flu viruses.
By the end of the summer, it reached the Russian capital of St. Petersburg and from there is spread to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, landing in America, in Massachusetts, at the end of the year. By early 1890, it spread to South America, where it ravaged Argentina, helping trigger a coup there in July that later incited the Panic of 1893, a major worldwide economic recession.
The first wave killed such notable people as Empress Augusta, the queen mother of Germany, and Knights of Columbus founder Michael McGivney.
It’s effect on Russia was notable. It hit early in the reign of Tsar Alexander III — himself later a survivor of the pandemic – who had reversed some of the economic reforms of his father, Tsar Alexander II. The former tsar was assassinated in 1881 at the hands of an extremist who was unhappy with how little the tsar’s promised policies toward reforming the country’s medieval economic system went. As a result, his successor did a complete 180 degree turn and rolled back the modernization of the Russian economy, bringing back the feudal system and leaving much of Russia’s population in poverty, essentially enslaved to land-owning nobility. That left a huge portion of Russia’s population vulnerable to a pandemic, and the return of agriculture under Alexander III as a primary economic system might have also lead to the pandemic itself – putting humans in close proximity to farm animals, notably cows, and slaughterhouses and providing the opportunity for the virus to jump to humans. The catastrophic number of deaths and economic suffering caused by the pandemic in Russia helped revolutionaries build support and put Russia on a track that ended nearly 30 years later with the Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union. Some historians link the two by noting children who suffered through the pandemic and watched their elderly relatives die held the Russian monarchy in contempt for their responsibility in causing and mismanaging the pandemic, and that ire inspired them to become part of the Russian Revolution as adults, still carrying the emotional and social scars from 1889.
Makes you wonder if there will be events in the late 2040s that we will be able to tie directly to what’s going on now, doesn’t it?
The 1889-1890 Pandemic lasted about 20 months, ending in December 1890, but there were recurrences in Spring 1891, winter 1891-1892, winter 1893-1894 and early 1895, each recurrence being less serious that the previous. It finally disappeared in 1895 – and by disappeared, it just became seasonal and endemic and was managed naturally through a level of natural immunity and treatment options or mutated to a less serious virus. OC43, if it is what caused the 1889-1890 Pandemic, still circulates today, causing common colds.
During an 1892 recurrence in Britain, the virus killed Prince Albert Rupert, Queen Victoria’s grandson and second in line to the throne after her and her son the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). As a result, Prince Albert’s younger brother, George, took his place in line and became King George V in 1910 when his father died. George was king during the 1918 pandemic and is the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, meaning Her Majesty may owe her title and her throne to a coronavirus.
Another interesting historical note: The “Russian flu” sickened King Alfonso XIII of Spain, then only five years old and king since birth as his father died during his mother’s pregnancy. He grew severely ill and suffered a long recovery, remaining fatigued and lethargic for months. (Another similarity to COVID-19). His long recovery and lethargy forever left an image in the mind of Spanish nobles and subjects that he was a weak and sickly king. Alfonso would later become severely ill as an adult during the 1918 Pandemic, helping give that virus its nickname, the “Spanish Flu,” and helping further cement the idea of his feebleness in the minds of his people. Revolutionaries seized the opportunity to overthrow a sickly king and a decade and a half after the 1918 Pandemic, Alfonso was forced to abdicate during the Spanish Civil War and died in exile in Italy at a young age of 54 – perhaps weakened by lifelong effects of a novel coronavirus infection?
So what does this all tell us? Well if this was a coronavirus, it took just under two years to infect enough people for it to wane in a world of 1.2 billion people, but it came back several more times over the course of the next five years after that. Is that what we have to look forward to this time? Well, yes, possibly if there’s no vaccine, but a vaccine is very likely and will shorten that timeline tremendously.
And a century or more from now, humans might still be infected by SARS-COVID2, but it would barely give them a cold. Who knows what the world will look like then though?