Scientists Suffer Major
Setback In Hunt For
1918 Killer Flu
By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - Scientists seeking frozen traces of a deadly 1918 flu virus in an Arctic cemetery suffered a major setback on Tuesday when they found seven coffins in a shallow grave too warm to preserve the bug. ``This is uncomfortable for us. We weren't expecting to find coffins at this level, 20 to 30 cm (eight to 12 inches) below the surface,'' said Tom Bergan, a Norwegian professor on the team. ``We cannot find any samples of the virus at this depth,'' he told Reuters from Spitzbergen island, 800 miles (1,300 km) from the North Pole. ``The coffins we have looked into contain only bones.'' The scientists started the exhumation on Saturday hoping to find frozen corpses of seven Norwegian coal miners who died in 1918 of ``Spanish flu,'' which killed between 20 and 40 million people, or more than all the battles of World War One. The scientists, from Canada, the United States, Britain and Norway, have been hoping to find out what made the 1918 flu so lethal and so develop vaccines against any future pandemics. They had believed that the coffins were in the permafrost -- about 2.0 to 2.5 metres below the surface -- where bodies and the virus would be in an eternal deep freeze. The seven coffins found during excavations on Tuesday were all in soil that thaws in summer, where bacteria quickly break down soft tissues like lungs -- and with them any trace of the virus. The permafrost starts at about one metre (yard) below the surface. Bergan said the digging would continue since scientists were unsure if the coffins belonged to the seven coal miners. One hope was that the coffins were of unknown people and added on top of the original burial pit. ``We will continue the excavation down into the permafrost,'' Bergan said, adding: ``We are trying to work to identify the bodies. So far we have not found any markers on the coffins.'' The team originally decided to go ahead with the exhumations only after a high-tech ``ground penetrating radar'' survey last year indicated the corpses were in the permafrost. ``The radar experts are going over their measurements again,'' Bergan said. The radar survey had not given any hint of the coffins near the surface. The scientists, using high tech gear including astronaut-style anti-infection suits, had expected to find the Norwegian miners, aged 18 to 29, in a row of coffins deep down. The Spanish flu sweptdern Black Death. It probably originated in the United States and spread rapidly among troops deployed in the last months of World War One. Unlike most flus, it hit the young hardest. Scientists speculate that the elderly -- usually the most susceptible to flu -- may have built up an immunity from a cocktail of similar flu viruses in the late 19th century.