- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

LONDON — Scientists looking for ways to combat bird flu have been given permission to exhume the body of a British diplomat who died nearly 90 years ago in one of the largest influenza pandemics of the 20th century.

Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, an aristocrat turned politician who helped dismantle the Ottoman Empire, succumbed to the Spanish flu outbreak that swept across the world in 1918-19, killing between 30 million and 50 million of its victims.

The key to this new spurt of scientific interest is the sealed lead coffin that holds his body — and possibly preserved remnants of the Spanish flu virus itself — in a cemetery at St. Mary’s Church, Sledmere, in northeast England.

If all goes as expected, his body will be exhumed sometime during the next year — although only on the condition insisted upon by the Church of England and Sykes’ six grandchildren that no publicity or notice be released, and that the exhumation site be hidden from public view.

“We’re after an intact body,” John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary’s College, London, and leader of the research team, told reporters. “Sometimes people who have been buried in lead are very well preserved.”

Scientists have been struck by an apparent similarity between the 1918-19 virus, H1N1, and today’s bird-carried variety, H5N1, both forms of avian flu. H5N1 is not easily spread from human to human, though health specialists fear it could mutate into a virulent form like the Spanish flu.

But Mr. Oxford said only five useful samples from the Spanish pandemic had ever been found — mostly in corpses of World War I soldiers and Eskimo bodies recovered frozen in the Arctic.

None of these, Mr. Oxford emphasized, was from a body in a lead coffin. That, he thinks, could provides vital clues to a treatment and perhaps even a vaccine to deal with the new threat of an avian-flu pandemic.

“At the moment,” the professor said, “we are on the potential verge of the first great outbreak of influenza of the 21st century. … If we can get a well-preserved body,” he said, “that will be a huge step forward” to thwarting it.

What he and other researchers on his team hope is that the lead of the coffin will have made it so airtight that Sykes’ remains will provide tissue that still contains material that could be useful in unraveling the last mysteries of the Spanish flu virus.

Mark Sykes, as he preferred to be known, was an architect of the post-World War I Middle East realignment that divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence, and he drafted preliminary boundaries for what later became the borders of Syria, Iraq and Israel.

Sykes was attending the Versailles peace conference, near Paris, when he was stricken by Spanish flu, and died from it in a hotel room in the French capital in February 1919 at age 39. His body was thought to have been sealed in the lead coffin to be shipped back to England for burial.

All six of Sykes’ grandchildren gave their permission for the exhumation of their grandfather’s body.

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