Scientists to exhume diplomat’s corpse for bird flu clues

By Tan Ee Lyn HONG KONG, Reuters

Scientists plan to exhume within the next five months the body of a British diplomat who died in 1919 of the Spanish flu, in a move they hope will provide vital clues on how to fight any future pandemic.

Experts see strong parallels between the H5N1 bird flu virus of today and the H1N1 virus of 1918/1919 which sparked the Spanish flu that killed more than 50 million people.

Both were deadly bird viruses which jumped directly to humans and any information that could be gleaned from the Spanish flu virus may help provide better understanding of the H5N1, which experts fear may unleash the next pandemic once it learns to transmit efficiently among people.

John Oxford, virology professor at the Royal London Hospital, said the family of Sir Mark Sykes — a member of parliament who also served as a diplomat during World War I — gave permission for the exhumation in late February.

Sykes’ body is seen as especially important because it was buried in a sealed lead coffin which helps to preserve the body, Oxford said in an interview.

“The fact that he is in lead is the crucial point. From exhumations done in the U.K. by other people, people who are buried in lead can be very well preserved for 200 years,” said Oxford, who was visiting Hong Kong to attend a medical conference.

“It has taken 15 months to get to where we are (obtaining permission from Sykes’ family). I would say four, five months,” he said when asked when the exhumation was likely to take place.

Oxford said Sykes probably caught the virus in the Middle East and he died shortly after arriving in Paris in early 1919. He was 39. His wife, who was also infected, survived.

Through analyzing tissue samples from Sykes’ organs, Oxford’s team hopes to uncover two pieces of information.

“Hopefully, if the body is intact, we would be able to get two other pieces of information. One is, did the virus spread to other organs? We know it’s in the lungs, but did it spread to the brain, how widespread was it in the body?” Oxford said.

“The distribution of the virus in other organs is quite important. How is this virus distributed outside the respiratory tract? Is it entering the brain? If so, then we need to know if the drugs that we hope to use (to fight H5N1) also penetrate the brain. That’s very practical.”

Oxford’s team also hopes to discover if the Spanish flu virus triggered an overreaction in Sykes’ immune system — or what is called a cytokine storm, when the immune system overreacts and causes an inflammation of the lungs and other organs that may end up killing the person.

It has been established that the H5N1 can cause such an overreaction, resulting in rapid death.

Oxford said: “What was (Sykes) response to the infection? Was there a cytokine storm which explained their rapid death?”

If the Spanish flu virus had triggered cytokine storms, then it could add weight to a recent proposal by some scientists that drugs be given to suppress slightly the immune system of bird flu victims.

“If the people died of an over-active immune system, then you ask the question, could we use a mild immuno suppressive drug to reduce this over-reaction?” Oxford said.

He conceded, however, that this would be difficult.

“That is a tricky proposition because usually it is the immune response that protects you. If you reduce it you could make things worse, it is a delicate balance,” he said.