MU researchers look to 1918 pandemic for COVID-19 answers

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COLUMBIA —More than 100 years ago, the world faced one of the most severe pandemics in modern history. 

Two researchers from the University of Missouri received a grant of more than $146,000 to compare the 1918 flu pandemic to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“The focus of our study really is trying to understand what kinds of socioeconomic conditions and other characteristics in rural areas versus urban areas tie to patterns of infectious disease,” MU anthropology chair and professor Lisa Sattenspiel said.

She said most data comes from urban areas. While Missouri has large urban areas, she said Missouri also has a very large rural community.

“The people in rural areas are faced with a different set of constraints and different factors that are likely to be important for them and not so important for urban people, and vice versa,” Sattenspiel said.

Her research partner, Carolyn Orbann, said the urban and rural cultures of Missouri makes it a great state to research.

“One of the things that makes Missouri a good text piece for this is that a lot of the urban centers are the same in Missouri,” she said.


Orbann is an associate teaching professor in the health sciences department at MU. She said one of the similarities between the 1918 flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic is the shutdowns.

One of the 12 people in their research group found “school closures all over, church limitations, mass gathering limitations, business closures [and] movement restrictions.”

Sattenspiel said the response for prevention is not very different, at all.

“There are a ton of similarities between people’s responses,” she said.  “It’s the same kinds of things people are trying to do and the same kinds of responses people are having.”

Sattenspiel said the main difference in closures was the length of time. For most schools today, it has been more than 3 months since students walked the halls. Some are considering virtual learning for the fall semester.

“These closures lasted weeks, not months,” she said.


Orbann said many of the schools, for example, “closed, reopened and then re-closed again.”

Just as the 1918 flu pandemic went through these phases, or “waves,” the American Medical Association says a second wave of COVID-19 is likely. However, Sattenspiel said it is not guaranteed.

“We really don’t know if there will be a second wave,” she said. “A lot of the assumptions of there being a second wave are a direct comparison to the 1918 flu, but COVID is a completely different virus.”

She said said no one should assume there will be a second wave, but everyone should be prepared for one.

After Governor Mike Parson’s announcement last week, the state was allowed to reopen on Tuesday.

Orbann said it is important people still take precautions, because COVID-19 cases are still on the rise.

“The policy change has a big ripple effect on how safe people feel,” she said. “People want to trust the government and think the government is functioning with the best knowledge possible.”

Orbann said that feeling of security for some people makes it more difficult for others to avoid leaving the house. “Normal” behavior will be expected, especially as aids like unemployment and bailout loans become less readily available.

Her partner agreed.

 “The problem is: whatever is best strictly from a public health standpoint is probably the worst from a business standpoint, and vice-versa,” Sattenspiel said.

She said the flu has still caused pandemics in recent years, but people have become “used to” the flu.

“It hasn’t really gone away,” Sattenspiel said.

She also said people tried to come up with a vaccination in 1918 but had no concept of viruses at the same.

The National Science Foundation’s grant is available for Orbann and Sattanspiel through April 2021. They said they hope to have all their data collected by then but predict they may need extra time to complete analysis and reports.