Hoping to learn the secrets of one of the deadliest viruses ever known, scientists will dig into the permafrost on a desolate Arctic island to unearth the bodies of six young coal miners killed by the Spanish flu decades ago.

The Spanish flu killed at least 20 million people in a 1918-19 global epidemic, and the scientists who begin exhuming the corpses on Wednesday believe more knowledge of the virus could help fight future epidemics."If we know the genetic structure of the virus, it can help us produce a vaccine," Tom Bergan, a Norwegian physician and professor at the University of Oslo, said as he arrived at Norway's remote and frigid Svalbard Islands on Sunday.

It is not without qualms that the 15 experts from four countries will begin digging into the permafrost, which has preserved the bodies in graves marked by white wooden crosses in Longyearbyen. The village is the main town on the largely glacier-covered Svalbard Archipelago, a mining outpost north of mainland Norway just 600 miles from the North Pole.

"Death is a very private thing," team leader Kristy Duncan, a medical geographer from the University of Windsor in Canada, said in an interview Sunday. "We did not want to disturb a cemetery unless there was a good chance of learning the secrets of the Spanish flu."

Duncan said she was deeply moved that the families of the men would give their permission to dig up the graves in hopes of benefiting humanity.