1918 influenza pandemic caused by highly conserved viruses with two receptor-binding variants

Emerg Infect Dis. 2003 Oct;9(10):1249-53. doi: 10.3201/eid0910.020789.


The “Spanish influenza pandemic swept the globe in the autumn and winter of 1918–19, and resulted in the deaths of approximately 40 million people. Clinically, epidemiologically, and pathologically, the disease was remarkably uniform, which suggests that similar viruses were causing disease around the world. To assess the homogeneity of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, partial hemagglutinin gene sequences have been determined for five cases, including two newly identified samples from London, United Kingdom. The strains show 98.9% to 99.8% nucleotide sequence identity. One of the few differences between the strains maps to the receptor-binding site of hemagglutinin, suggesting that two receptor-binding configurations were co-circulating during the pandemic. The results suggest that in the early stages of an influenza A pandemic, mutations that occur during replication do not become fixed so that a uniform “consensus” strain circulates for some time.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Base Sequence
  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • Disease Outbreaks / history*
  • Genes, Viral
  • Genetic Variation
  • Hemagglutinin Glycoproteins, Influenza Virus / genetics
  • Hemagglutinin Glycoproteins, Influenza Virus / physiology
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Influenza A virus / genetics
  • Influenza A virus / pathogenicity
  • Influenza A virus / physiology
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology
  • Influenza, Human / history*
  • Influenza, Human / virology
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • North America / epidemiology
  • Receptors, Virus / physiology


  • DNA, Viral
  • Hemagglutinin Glycoproteins, Influenza Virus
  • Receptors, Virus