An Undiscovered Coronavirus? The Mystery of the ‘Russian Flu’

Dr. Taubenberger predicts better evidence will emerge. He and John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at the University of London, have been looking for flu or coronavirus in old lung tissue from patients who were ill with a respiratory disease in the years before the 1918 flu. They had hoped to find them embedded in tiny blocks of paraffin no bigger than a pinky fingernail in the Royal London Hospital, a place that has tissue from patients dating back to around 1906.

“We sampled hundreds of tissues,” Dr. Taubenberger said, without finding viruses. “We continue to look,” he said.

But, he said, with renewed interest in the 1890 pandemic, he hopes some tissues containing the Russian flu virus — whatever it is — might be found, perhaps lying unnoticed in the basements of museums or medical schools in different corners of the world.

Finding the tissue, though, has been challenging.

“The people running institutions in which they might be housed very likely would have no way to easily access records about them,” Dr. Taubenberger said. “Paradoxically, genetic analysis of these samples would be less difficult than locating them in the first place.”

Dr. Podolsky of Harvard and Dominic W. Hall, the curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard, are also looking for tissue archives that might have lung tissue from that era. Mr. Hall has been reaching out to those in charge of collections of tissue samples.

On Thursday, he spoke with Anna Dhody, director of the research institute at the Mutter Museum, a collection of anatomical specimens and items from medical history in Philadelphia. She thinks items in the museum’s climate-controlled storage room may help.

The archive contains jars of tissue from the late 19th century, including a few whole lungs, all floating in jars of pale yellow liquid, the alcohol that was used as a preservative.

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