The Great Pandemic of 1889-1890

The Great Pandemic of 1889-1890

In the Northern winter of 1889 -1890, one of the deadliest pandemics since the Black Death of the mid 14th Century swept the world. Our forebears called it the Russian Flu.  Where the Black Death took three years to spread from Constantinople to England, the Russian Flu – travelling westwards by train and steamship – took only few months to circle the globe. From Uzbekistan to California the pandemic disrupted economies, filled hospitals to overcapacity, and claimed the lives of over a million people – equivalent to 5 million deaths in today’s more densely populated world. This was a similar death rate to that of the current Covid-19 pandemic (at the time of writing – July 2021 – 4 million deaths…and counting).


In Paris, emergency tented wards were set up in the parks to handle the overflow of “Russian Flu” cases.

By the summer of 1890, the infection and death rates from the Russian Flu had declined, but the disease returned with large numbers of deaths in the succeeding winters of ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94 and ’95, but each passing wave had less virulence. It returned again in ’96, but by that stage, no one was counting. Twenty years later the commencement of the First World War (with 20 million deaths) and the Spanish Flu (in 1919 with 60 million deaths) drove the whole episode from memory. That is, apart from a few specialized historians.

The Petit Parisien

But the disease which caused the late 19th century pandemic had not gone away. It is still with us today. I have probably caught it many times. You have too.

The Russian Flu was not a flu and it did not come from Russia.

The “Russian Flu” was probably not influenza, and it did not originate in European Russia.

There is good circumstantial evidence (see footnotes 1 and 3) that the pandemic was caused by a coronavirus. A virus new to humanity in 1889 which had jumped the inter-species barrier, probably from cattle. This one-off event happened in in Uzbekistan in 1889 (2). Where the cattle themselves got the virus from is more speculative – rodents, pangolins, camels, that bat cave in China – take your pick. It is arguable that today the 1889 virus is well known and goes by the catchy name of HCoV-OC43.  OC43 is an important member (around 5% of all colds) of a group of coronaviruses which, along with rhinoviruses and adenoviruses, make up the virologic package which gives us the common cold. Colds are highly transmissible, but their virulence is extremely low. A seasonal nuisance for all, but otherwise no big deal.

The zoo where the agents of the common cold live is a retirement village where elderly respiratory viruses go when the glory days of their youth are long past.

The story which can be told of OC43 is instructive: as a novel zoonotic crossover for which humans had few defenses in 1889, it hit with deadly initial impact. But as it multiplied explosively through its human host, Darwinian natural selection took over. Viruses mutate rapidly: it is their strength but also, from our point of view, their weakness. There is natural selection for mutant strains which increase transmission rates. But there is also a natural selection for mutant strains which do not actually kill their host but allow them to move around in society and so infect others.  It is poor evolutionary strategy to kill or severely incapacitate a victim you also rely on for transmission. An evolutionary dead end.

Although early days, we can now begin to see the same natural process happening with SARS-CoV-2 the virus which causes Covid-19 disease. The delta (formerly Indian) variant, through its increased transmissibility, is replacing the original alpha strain, but appears to be much less deadly than alpha (although this latter effect is hard to quantify since, in first world countries at least, the most vulnerable (i.e., the over seventies) are now largely vaccinated.

(Insert added January 2022: the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 which first appeared in South Africa in late 2021 is now the dominant global strain and has largely replaced Delta. This continues this trend of increasing transmissibility but declining virulence in the evolution of the virus). February 2022: Omicron is now widely recognised as being less virulent than common seasonal Influenza.

Mask mandates, social distancing, lockdowns, travel bans, curfews, gathering the worst affected or the most vulnerable into hospitals or care homes acts against these natural ameliorating evolutionary processes. It is debatable how many lives these measures might save in the short term, but it is beyond question that, long term, they can only prolong the pandemic. The unintended consequences and collateral damage caused by extreme lockdown measures may be much worse than the disease.

The only viable route to rapidly end our current pandemic is mass vaccination. In the late 19th century, our ancestors suffered for over five years. Thankfully, we now have the technology to do much better than that.


I was alerted to the 1889 Pandemic and the possible role of OC43 through reading Matt Ridley’s blog post: Virulent does not mean infectious.  Matt Ridley is a popular science author and journalist (and also an elected member of the British House of Lords). In my opinion, he writes one of the best Science blogs on the net and can always be relied upon for wide knowledge, insight and cool rational assessment. His book (co-authored with Alina Chan) Viral : “The Search for the Origin of Covid-19″ was published by Harper Collins in November 2021. It is a brilliant technical forensic examination of all available evidence on the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Their conclusions? On the balance of probabilities, the SARS-COV-19 Virus was deliberately created by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through gain-of-function research conducted under less-than-optimal biohazard laboratory conditions. 


(1) The closest relative (with a 96% point by point match of their genome letter sequences) to the common-cold coronavirus OC43 is a coronavirus affecting cattle known as BCoV.  In 2005, Dr Mark van Ranst and fellow researchers of Leuven University in Belgium compared the evolutionary history of the two genomes and determined that the OC43 lineage began with a split from its bovine cousin “around” 1890 (LINK to their 2005 paper in the Journal of Virology). There they state: “ is tempting to speculate.. that the 1889-1890 pandemic may have been the result of interspecies transmission of bovine coronavirus to humans, resulting in in the subsequent emergence of HCoV-OC43.”  Further evidence of this possibility is provided by the fact that the devastating “flu” which struck that year had symptoms which were atypical for influenza: it infected the old more than the young, men more than women and, in many cases, destroyed the sense of smell and taste of its victims. These are symptoms which characterise Covid-19 – the coronavirus disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. This is not proof that a youthful early version of OC43 was the cause the 1989-1890 Pandemic. The evidence is circumstantial and may be mere coincidence. But the possibility is compelling. Until or unless someone obtains an actual sample of the 1889 virus, it is probably the best evidence we will get.

(2) The earliest recorded case of the 1889 Pandemic was in Bukhara, capital of the independent Republic of Uzbekistan, in May 1889. However, the ground zero case must have been prior to that and was likely a local Uzbek cattle herder. The original viral jump from the bovine to the human world was of course an entirely natural event. There was no gain-of-function virology research in 1889. Viruses were only identified and named as a separate class of pathogen ten years later, in 1898.


(3) Knudsen, Jeppe Kyhne (13 August 2020). (in Danish) “Overraskende opdagelse: Coronavirus har tidligere lagt verden ned”  Surprising discovery: Coronavirus has previously brought down the world.   A presumed influenza pandemic in 1889 was actually caused by coronavirus”




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