The current concern over the world-wide spread of swine flu virus brings to mind research that Dr. Linus Pauling conducted on this very subject, some thirty-three years ago.
Pauling’s interest in swine flu seems to have been stoked by a convergence of two factors: 1) mounting fears over a potential swine flu epidemic that first emerged in the winter of 1976; and 2) his composition of the book Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu, which was published in September, 1976. In the book – which was essentially a revised and updated version of Pauling’s massively-popular Vitamin C and the Common Cold, published in 1970 – Pauling chronicles the development of the swine flu concerns contemporary to his authorship of the 1976 volume.
In February 1976 there was an outbreak of influenza in a large military establishment in Fort Dix, New Jersey. One young serviceman, exhausted by his participation in strenuous exercises, died of pneumonia. Typing of the virus showed that about 500 of the 12,000 persons in the camp had been infected by a swine-influenza virus, given the name A/NJ/76, whereas some others had been infected by another virus, A/Victoria/75, which was then sweeping over the United States and Europe. Although the virus A/NJ/76 seemed to have died out after infecting only 4 percent of the people in the camp, the resemblance of the virus to that of the 1918-1919 pandemic [referenced in the San Francisco Chronicle article above] and the death by pneumonia of one person after a strenuous night-time military exercise while he was suffering from swine flu caused fears that another swine-flu epidemic might occur in 1976-1977. President Ford announced in March that $135 million had been appropriated by the Federal Government to support the preparation of vaccine by pharmaceutical companies in an amount great enough to permit essentially all of the people in the United States to be vaccinated.
In Pauling’s view, this approach was problematic on many levels. For one, the vaccines that were developed actually showed a tendency to make certain patients – especially children – sick. Partly as a result of this, the companies manufacturing the vaccines were not able to obtain proper insurance from private vendors and were forced to solicit protection from the federal government.
More importantly, from Pauling’s vantage point, the threat posed by the 1976 swine flu outbreak was seemingly overblown.
The question of how serious the threat of a pandemic really is has also been raised. During the last forty years the epidemics of influenza have shown remarkably little variation in their virulence. The high mortality in the 1918-1919 epidemic, especially among the younger adults, might have resulted from the malnutrition and other stresses at the end of a long war, causing the virus to be more than usually virulent and favoring the occurrence of secondary bacterial pneumonia.
Crucially, certain statistical and anecdotal specifics of the 1976 outbreak lent support to Pauling’s position:
The facts that the infection in Fort Dix affected only 4 percent of the persons in the camp and that no other cases of swine flu have been reported since the Fort Dix outbreak lend support to the suggestion…that the Fort Dix episode may be an isolated occurrence. It now seems quite unlikely that there will be a swine-flu epidemic, and there is now little justification for recommending mass vaccination.
For those familiar with Pauling’s later work, it should come as no surprise that he recommended the regular intake of vitamin C as an effective deterrent to influenza, including swine flu. As noted in Pauling’s June 5, 1976 letter to the editor of the New York Times included below
I have advocated the use of Vitamin C in amounts of several grams per day to prevent or treat the common cold and other infectious diseases, including influenza, and I think that it may be of importance in relation to the expected epidemic of swine flu that people not be discouraged from making proper use of this valuable substance.
Again referring to Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu, Pauling broadly suggests that a daily intake of between 250 to 4,000 milligrams of vitamin C, scaling up to as much as 10,000 milligrams per day – the amount that Pauling himself was taking in 1976, according to the San Francisco Chronicle article above – would decrease one’s chances of contracting a whole host of maladies, including influenza and the common cold.
For more on the theory behind Pauling’s vitamin C advocacy, see “Orthomolecular Enhancement of Human Development” (pdf link), a speech that Pauling delivered in 1978 to the Institutes for Achievement of Human Potential. For more on Pauling’s life, work and legacy, see the Linus Pauling Online portal.