How much of a threat do “zombie viruses” pose to humans?

A frozen lake in Yakutia in northeastern Russia apparently harbored a virus (Getty/iStock)

French scientists have raised eyebrows around the world after reviving an ancient virus trapped in Siberian permafrost for more than 48,500 years.

The new study, led by microbiologist Jean-Marie Claverie of the University of Aix Marseille, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, presents the alarming possibility that other pathogens stored for millennia in dense ice could be released in the form of “viruses “infectious” zombies as glaciers and frozen ground thaw, a process that the climate crisis threatens to exacerbate due to global warming.

While it might sound like a premise from the wonderful world of B-movie sci-fi, a new threat to human life on earth is the last thing we need right now, so how seriously should we take it?

The microbe in question – one of 13 recovered from seven samples and nicknamed “Pandoravirus yedoma” after the mythical Pandora – had been trapped for centuries 16 meters under the bed of a lake in Yukechi Alas in Yakutia, in northeastern Russia, yet it was still capable of infecting a microscopic single-celled organism called acanthamoeba in laboratory tests.

Fortunately, the researchers behind the study said they were confident it poses no threat to any living thing as complex as a human.

“The biohazard associated with the resurgence of prehistoric viruses infecting the amoeba is … entirely negligible,” wrote Claverie’s team.

But while that particular strain is unlikely to prove dangerous, the prospect of other diseases held in a state of cryptobiosis being released is significant when you consider that nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere consists of permanently frozen ground.

As global warming causes polar ice to gradually melt, it will release long-stored organic matter, including carbon dioxide and methane, further contributing to the warming of our planet’s atmosphere, and (potentially) even more dormant viruses locked up by previous eras.

“How long these viruses might remain infectious once exposed to external conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat), and how likely they are to encounter and infect a suitable host in between, is still impossible to estimate,” the researchers wrote. Claveries. .

“But the risk is set to increase in the context of global warming as permafrost thawing continues to accelerate and more people populate the Arctic in the wake of industrial initiatives.”

Their warning was backed up by University of California virologist Eric Delwart, who said New scientist: ‘If the authors are indeed isolating live viruses from ancient permafrost, it is likely that even smaller and simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for eons.’

There is precedent for recovering viruses from permafrost, with Ohio State University researchers reporting in 2021 that they had detected genetic material from 33 diseases in ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau estimated to be up to 15,000 years old.

And, second TimesA boy was killed by anthrax in Siberia in 2016 after encountering an infected reindeer carcass that was revealed after a heat wave melted the snows, as the bacteria hasn’t been felt in the region since 1941.

Ice forms in the East Siberian city of Yakuts (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

Ice forms in the East Siberian city of Yakuts (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

The French scientists noted in their study that there has been limited research into ‘live’ viruses found in permafrost, saying: ‘This falsely suggests that such events are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ are not a health threat. publish”.

While they were confident their effort posed little risk, they were more concerned about a Russian project to recover “paleoviruses” directly from the remains of woolly mammoths and prehistoric rhinos and horses because they have been shown to have already infected mammals.

This study is currently underway at the Vector laboratory in Novosibirsk.

“The situation would be much more dire in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an ancient, unknown virus,” Claverie’s team warned.

It is worth considering that, if a “zombie virus” were to be released after centuries buried in ice and prove harmful to humans, we would have no vaccine ready or antiviral drug on hand to vaccinate us against it, as was the case when Covid-19 first emerged from Wuhan, China.

A new pandemic could mean putting the world back into lockdown once again, a prospect few would relish after the events of the past three years and one that suggests we really should be taking the prospect of revenant disease seriously, at least theoretically.

All of this provides yet another reminder, as if it were needed, that we need to do more to address the climate crisis while we are still in a position to affect change.

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