Integrating historical, clinical and molecular genetic data in order to explain the origin and virulence of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2001 Dec 29;356(1416):1829-39. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2001.1020.


The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 caused acute illness in 25-30% of the world's population and resulted in the death of 40 million people. The complete genomic sequence of the 1918 influenza virus will be deduced using fixed and frozen tissues of 1918 influenza victims. Sequence and phylogenetic analyses of the complete 1918 haemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) genes show them to be the most avian-like of mammalian sequences and support the hypothesis that the pandemic virus contained surface protein-encoding genes derived from an avian influenza strain and that the 1918 virus is very similar to the common ancestor of human and classical swine H1N1 influenza strains. Neither the 1918 HA genes nor the NA genes possessed mutations that are known to increase tissue tropicity, which accounts for the virulence of other influenza strains such as A/WSN/33 or fowl plague viruses. The complete sequence of the nonstructural (NS) gene segment of the 1918 virus was deduced and tested for the hypothesis that the enhanced virulence in 1918 could have been due to type I interferon inhibition by the NS1 protein. The results from these experiments were inconclusive. Sequence analysis of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus is allowing us to test hypotheses as to the origin and virulence of this strain. This information should help to elucidate how pandemic influenza strains emerge and what genetic features contribute to their virulence.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Disease Outbreaks / history*
  • Disease Reservoirs
  • Hemagglutinin Glycoproteins, Influenza Virus / genetics
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Influenza A virus / genetics*
  • Influenza A virus / pathogenicity*
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology
  • Influenza, Human / history*
  • Influenza, Human / virology*
  • Neuraminidase / genetics
  • Swine
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / genetics
  • Virulence


  • Hemagglutinin Glycoproteins, Influenza Virus
  • INS1 protein, influenza virus
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Neuraminidase