Search for a frozen killer, Part II

Dr Smith helps erect a fence to keep the curious at a distance.

The preparations for the dig are ready to begin. Workers place blue barriers on the ground to protect the fragile tundra environment, and set up a fence around the cemetery to keep the curious at a distance and give the scientists enough of a work area to erect their makeshift morgue. The white wooden crosses marking the graves of the miners were gently lifted and wrapped.

To protect the tundra the team didn’t bring wheeled vehicles to the graveyard. The location of the site is on an incline on the side of a steep slippery slope, and seventeen tonnes of material had to be pushed up the incline with the help of a hand-operated winch.

“The job of hauling up the equipment was greater than anticipated — ten people spent over five grueling hours hauling the material for the dig,” Smith recounts. For safety, and to preserve the dignity of the dead, the team kept outsiders out of their makeshift lab. Much of the labour was conducted in privacy.

On August 21st the digging begins. Caked with mud, the workers use shovels to remove the surface layer of tundra. The scientists’ goal is to dig to a level of 1.6 metres, where the permafrost begins. Within the walls of the tent they proceed with the utmost caution. For now, some wear masks and waterproof suits in the squalid conditions. But when they get closer to their quarry, they will don biohazard space suits to protect themselves from potential infection.

But then on Monday, August 24 the unexpected happens. Late in the afternoon three coffins are found, centimetres from the surface. On Tuesday a fourth coffin is uncovered. Soon all seven coffins are unearthed, all above the permafrost. The bodies have been through the thaws of 80 summers. The remains are most likely badly decomposed. The team has lost all hope of recovering “live” virus.

“That was a surprise to everyone,” Smith recalled. “Initially we didn’t think it was coffins, just wooden boxes. We had every reason to believe that the bodies were where they should be. The GPR never showed us coffins, just disturbances.”

After some discussion, the group decides to open the coffin to salvage whatever scraps of tissue and bone they can find, in a last ditch effort to get genetic traces of the virus. They will also continue to dig underneath the coffins in case there are more coffins buried further underground.

The bevy of media cameras were not allowed close to the digging site. This image was taken by telephoto lens through the flap of the tent.

But when Dr. Smith and his other team members took samples from the coffins, they finally got the break they were looking for. “Sampling of the bodies happened on Thursday. It was a long day and we were elated with the quality of the tissue,” he says.”It was most extraordinary — there were no clothes on the bodies. Some had been wrapped in layers of newspaper.”

If there was any doubt that these bodies belonged to the miners who died of the Spanish flu, fears were put to rest when the last coffin was opened. “There was a date from 1917 — we knew that it was the bodies we were looking for.”

Dr. Smith and his colleagues had permission from the families to collect samples from the six of the seven bodies. They retrieved slivers of bones, teeth and tissue clinging to the skeletal frame. Most importantly, the team was able to find some pulmonary tissue. This is a key discovery since the virus was most prevalent in the lungs of its victims.

After weeks of anticipation and disappointment, there was renewed hope. The scientists stubbornly claimed that even very small samples from the decomposing bodies can reveal much information about the virus.

The hunt for the killer will now extend to the lab. Microbiologists will use a procedure called PCR (polmerase chain reaction) to search for the genetic residue left by the Spanish flu. The PCR procedure will be able to take even a small shred of material, then amplify it many times and determine the genetic sequence and compare it to other viruses. But the attempt to learn something about the virus will be crippled by the fact that no frozen live virus was found. Until the results are released, it will remain unclear whether the pilgrimage to Longyearbyen was a potential lifesaver of millions, or a heroic effort in futility.

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