Books: After the armistice, the massacre

Piers Brendon recalls the pandemic that slew 40 million people and wonders whether it could strike again
Catching Cold

by Pete Davies

Michael Joseph, pounds 12.99, 306pp

IN 1918, pestilence became a greater scourge than war. A new strain of influenza, christened "Spanish flu", broke over the world in three devastating waves. Hundreds of millions caught it, among them John Dos Passos, who described the symptoms as a combination of "pneumonia, TB, diphtheria, diarrhoea, dyspepsia, sore throat, whooping cough, scarlet fever and beri-beri, whatever that is". Most recovered, but an estimated two per cent of the earth's population, some 40 million people, died. Spanish flu claimed more victims than the First World War, and more, perhaps, than the Black Death.

Yet everyone knows about the Black Death, whereas Spanish flu has rightly been called the "forgotten pandemic". This is partly because the natural catastrophe was eclipsed by the man-made holocaust of the Great War. And it is partly because the Black Death killed such a terrifyingly high proportion of those infected, wiping out entire communities. It is true that Spanish flu wreaked havoc in confined spaces such as troopships and Pacific islands. But the fatal contagion was less familiar than the temporary grippe, often taken lightly: "Open the door and income tax, Open the window and influenza."

Furthermore, as emerges from Pete Davies's curate's egg of a book, flu remains almost as elusive now as in 1918. Then each nation accused others of incubating it, as had happened with syphilis: Spain was saddled with the blame because King Alfonso XIII got the malady; but it could easily have been called German flu since the Kaiser was held responsible for having poisoned the world's atmosphere with gas. Creatures great and small were charged: French horses, Chinese ducks, American pigs and Canadian moose. Mussolini pointed the finger at the dirty custom of hand-shaking and recommended the hygienic Fascist salute. "Influenza" was originally attributed to astrological forces and in 1918 suspicion fell on the planet Jupiter.

Yet in recent years Fred Hoyle has identified sunspots as the possible cause of flu: bursts of solar radiation could reactivate latent viral entities. The fact is that modern scientists cannot agree that the flu virus stems from animals or even that it is alive. Some claim that it's not a micro-organism but a pure chemical. Others say it's something in between. In Davies's words, the "flu community" is exceedingly "discohesive", ie quarrelsome.

What all its members accept, though, is the inevitability of another pandemic on the scale of 1918. They share the view of the WHO expert, Professor Rob Webster, the "Pope of Bird Flu", that it is only a matter of time before the unstable influenza virus mutates (as HIV does) into something that will crack the human immune system. But the new molecular smash and grab raid will be much speedier and more violent. Jumbo jets will circulate the germ and convey passengers who have inhaled it all round the globe in a few hours.

Hence the urgent hunt through Arctic regions for the bodies of 1918 victims with frozen flesh containing the killer bug. Davies pens a scalpel-sharp account of a recent scientific expedition to north Norway, where seven miners, 80 years dead, were exhumed. It proved to be a costly fiasco. Little more than skeletons remained. Unwilling to admit defeat, the moving spirit of the expedition, a bossy Canadian named Kirsty Duncan, told the media that she was "elated" by the outcome.

Ironically, specimens of the requisite tissue were discovered in a much more obvious place: among 60 million samples at the American Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland. Here Dr Jeffrey Taubenberger led a team of scientists in a relentless search for "viral needles in molecular haystacks". Their positive result, in 1997, was confirmed by organic matter subsequently cut from the permafrosted corpse of an Alaskan flu victim.

However, breaking the genetic code of the Spanish flu virus is not the same as getting hold of the active agent. It is, as Davies says, like having a blueprint without a building.

Such analogies make the scientific dry bones of his story live. Equally alive are the scientists he portrays, anxious about their grants, ambitious to succeed in a cut-throat world and speaking a language of their own consisting almost entirely of jargon and cliche. But perhaps Davies puts too much faith in their prophecies, especially as they have proved so fallible when forecasting and analysing flu outbreaks. Sometimes his rather disorganised book reads like an obligatory health-scare story on the Today programme or a medical version of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. On the other hand, maybe the influenza apocalypse really is nigh. If so, one atishoo and we all fall down.

Piers Brendon has scripted two television documentaries on 1939, showing on Channel 4 tonight and tomorrow night