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Scientists warn that the presence of zombie viruses in the Arctic region of Siberia could potentially lead to a frightening global pandemic.
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Scientists warn that the presence of zombie viruses in the Arctic region of Siberia could potentially lead to a frightening global pandemic.

Researchers have issued a warning that a strange new pandemic danger is looming over humanity. They state that as the planet’s climate continues to warm, previously dormant ancient viruses could be unleashed from the Arctic permafrost and potentially spark a widespread disease outbreak.

Researchers have identified strains of Methuselah microbes, also referred to as zombie viruses, that could potentially lead to a new global medical crisis. This concern is not due to a novel illness, but rather an ancient disease from the past.

Scientists are currently devising an Arctic surveillance system to detect the emergence of a disease caused by ancient microorganisms. This network would also offer quarantine and specialized medical care to those infected in an effort to contain any potential outbreak and prevent the spread of the disease beyond the region.

Geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie from Aix-Marseille University stated that current evaluations of pandemic risks mainly consider illnesses that could originate in the south and spread to the north. He believes that there has been less consideration for the possibility of an outbreak originating in the far north and spreading southward, which he considers to be a mistake. According to Claverie, there are viruses present in these northern regions that could potentially infect humans and trigger a new disease outbreak.

Virologist Marion Koopmans from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam supports this idea. She explains that while we are not aware of the specific viruses present in the permafrost, there is a significant possibility that one could emerge and cause a disease outbreak, such as an ancient strain of polio. It is important to acknowledge the potential for this type of event.

In 2014, Claverie headed a group of researchers who successfully extracted active viruses from Siberia and demonstrated their ability to infect single-celled organisms, despite being frozen in permafrost for thousands of years. A subsequent study published last year uncovered multiple strains of viruses from seven different locations in Siberia, and proved their ability to infect cultured cells. One of these virus samples was estimated to be 48,500 years old.

Claverie stated that the viruses we discovered were only capable of infecting amoebae and did not pose any danger to humans. However, this does not rule out the possibility that other viruses buried in the permafrost could potentially cause illnesses in humans. Our research has revealed genetic evidence of poxviruses and herpesviruses, both of which are known to be harmful to humans.

Permafrost covers a fifth of the northern hemisphere and is made up of soil that has been kept at temperatures below zero for long periods. Some layers have remained frozen for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists have discovered.

“The key factor regarding permafrost is its cold and oxygen-deprived environment, making it ideal for preserving organic matter,” explained Claverie in an interview with the Observer. “Even after 50,000 years, a yoghurt stored in permafrost could potentially still be edible.”

However, the permafrost around the world is experiencing changes. The surface layers of the Earth’s major reserves, located in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, are thawing due to the disproportionate impact of climate change on the Arctic. Meteorologists have observed that the region is warming up at a much faster rate than the overall global increase in temperature.

According to Claverie, the primary danger does not stem from the direct melting of permafrost. Rather, it is a consequence of another effect of global warming: the loss of Arctic sea ice. This has led to increased shipping, traffic, and industrial activity in Siberia, including large-scale mining operations that will disrupt the deep permafrost in order to extract natural resources.

“These actions will result in the release of a significant number of pathogens that are still present in the area. Miners will then be exposed to and inhale these viruses, potentially causing catastrophic consequences.”

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Koopmans emphasized the importance of this point. Looking at the past instances of epidemic outbreaks, it is evident that a significant factor has been the alteration of land use. In the case of Nipah virus, fruit bats were displaced from their habitats due to human activities. Likewise, the rise of urbanization in Africa has been connected to the spread of monkeypox. The same phenomenon is expected to occur in the Arctic, with a dramatic shift in land use that could potentially pose a threat, as observed in other regions.

Researchers suggest that permafrost, particularly at its deepest layers, may harbor viruses that have been dormant for up to one million years. This would make them significantly older than our own species, which is estimated to have originated approximately 300,000 years ago.

According to Claverie, there is concern that our immune systems have not encountered certain microbes before. This raises the possibility of an ancient virus that infected Neanderthals potentially resurfacing in modern times, although this is unlikely, it is now a plausible scenario.

Due to this, Claverie and others are collaborating with UArctic, an international educational network in the polar region, to develop strategies for setting up quarantine facilities and offering medical knowledge that can identify early cases and treat them within the local area in an effort to contain the spread of the infection.

We are currently facing a real danger and must be ready to handle it. It’s as straightforward as that.

Source: theguardian.com