Scientists Warn Long-Frozen Arctic Zombie Virus In Siberia Poses Terrifying Public Health Threat Amid Thaw

By maks in News On 22nd January 2024

Climate change is impacting the Arctic, and as permafrost melts, ancient viruses, frozen for thousands of years, might be released, potentially triggering the next pandemic. 

Experts note that the world is not adequately prepared for such a scenario.

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Despite the ominous nickname 'zombie virus,' these pathogens are actually referred to as Methuselah microbes. 

There isn't an immediate threat of these ancient diseases currently circulating, but there is concern about their potential emergence in the future.

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A computer-enhanced image of a Pithovirus sibericum isolated from a 30,000-year-old sample of permafrost in 2014. Credit: Jean-Michel Claverie/IGS/CNRS-AM

Jean-Michel Claverie, a geneticist from Aix-Marseille University, points out a common oversight in pandemic planning. 

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He said, "At the moment, analyses of pandemic threats focus on diseases that might emerge in southern regions and then spread north."

"By contrast, little attention has been given to an outbreak that might emerge in the far north and then travel south – and that is an oversight, I believe."

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Claverie further warns:

"There are viruses up there that have the potential to infect humans and start a new disease outbreak."

Marion Koopmans, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, also expresses concern about permafrost containing diseases that either ancient humans dealt with or viruses so old they have never impacted our species. 

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She says:

"We don’t know what viruses are lying out there in the permafrost but I think there is a real risk that there might be one capable of triggering a disease outbreak – say of an ancient form of polio."

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"We have to assume that something like this could happen."

The permafrost, covering a fifth of the northern hemisphere, consists of soil kept at subzero temperatures for long periods. 

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Claverie explains the potential danger of a virus from this layer: 

"The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material."

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"You could put a yoghurt in permafrost and it might still be edible 50,000 years later."

With climate change causing the permafrost layers in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska to melt, meteorologists report that these areas are heating up several times faster than the global average temperature increase.