This incident was followed by another serendipitous event. A variety of flu (H1N1) that had not been in circulation for many decades was causing an epidemic that apparently started in Russia (Red Flu Pandemic). This was a godsend for testing the hypothesis of flu from space. School children younger than 21 years of age would not have encountered this virus and would in principle be all equally susceptible. It was Fred’s idea to use such children as “detectors” of the virus. They set about the mammoth task of conducting a survey of schools in Wales and England.
The outcome of the survey confirmed their suspicions. The way in which cases of influenza were distributed amongst the boarding houses at Howell’s School Cardiff and Eton College could not be explained on the basis of person to person spread. The indications were that a component at least of the causative agent fell from the skies and was distributed at ground level in accord with the vagaries of swirling air currents.
Historical data on influenza, particularly in the 1918-1919 pandemic that led to over 30 million deaths worldwide, provided added confirmation. Dr. Louis Wienstein reviewed this data in the New England Journal of Medicine of 6 May 1976:
“The influenza pandemic of 1918 occurred in three waves. The first appeared in the winter and spring of 1917-1918….. The lethal second wave, which started at Ford Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1918, involved almost the entire world over a very short time…..Its epidemiological behaviour was most unusual. Although person-to-person spread occurred in local areas, the disease appeared on the same day in widely separated parts of the world on the one hand, but, on the other, took days to weeks to spread relatively short distances. It was detected in Boston and Bombay on the same day, but took three weeks before it reached New York City, despite the fact that there was considerable travel between the two cities. It was present for the first time at Joliet in the State of Illinois four weeks after it was detected in Chicago, the distance between those areas being only 38 miles……”
With no air travel in 1918 simultaneous first strikes in Boston and Bombay is strong evidence of a component of the virus falling in from space.
The idea that comets were the delivery mechanism for the transportation of virus and other matter slowly grew in their minds. Fred wasn’t wholly convinced. More research, visits to leading viral research establishments finally convinced them that viruses like flu came from outside the earth. One of the most striking features in this whole story is that the technology of human travel has had no effect whatsoever on the way that influenza spreads.
Their ideas on the emergence of life on comets and a possible connection with plagues and pestilence had now advanced to a stage when it was decided that Fred should try them out on an academic audience. This started with a lecture from Fred delivered in Cardiff on January 18 1978 entitled “Diseases from Outer Space”. The auditorium was packed solid and the lecture created an atmosphere of controversy and hostility.
At this stage in their collaboration Chandra wondered for a while what astronomical discovery would encourage Fred to take the step from life emerging on a comet out of interstellar probiotics to fully-fledged microbial life distributed throughout interstellar space. Fred had now been expounding the former for nearly two years with conviction and much eloquence. If he had stayed with that their fortunes may have turned out differently. Their position of 1977 was after all the standard point of view of the scientific community in 2004.