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Arctic zombie viruses pose potential global threat, scientists warn

Arctic zombie viruses pose potential global threat, scientists warn Illustrative photo (Photo:
Author: Daria Shekina

Scientists warn that humanity may face a potentially dangerous pandemic caused by zombie virus strains or ancient microbes like those of Methuselah, which have been frozen in the Arctic permafrost. According to their opinion, such a global threat may arise not from new diseases but from the resurgence of pathogens from the distant past, reports British daily newspaper The Guardian.

The situation with viruses in the eternal permafrost

Due to this, scientists have begun developing plans for the creation of an Arctic monitoring system aimed at detecting early cases of diseases caused by ancient microorganisms.

This system will also ensure the implementation of quarantine measures and the provision of qualified medical care to infected individuals to prevent a potential epidemic and the spread of infection beyond this region.

Jean-Michel Claverie, a geneticist from the University of Aix-Marseille, states that little attention is currently paid to a potential outbreak that could occur in the far north and then spread southward. There are viruses that can infect humans and cause a new outbreak.

Virologist Marion Koopmans from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam supports this idea, noting, "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."

In 2014, under Claverie's leadership, a group of scientists isolated live viruses in Siberia and demonstrated their ability to infect single-celled organisms, despite millennia spent in eternal permafrost.

Arctic zombie viruses pose potential global threat, scientists warnPithovirus sibericum, isolated from a 30,000-year-old permafrost sample in 2014 (Photo: Jean-Michel Claverie/IGS/CNRS-AM)

Subsequent studies published last year identified several different virus strains from seven different locations in Siberia and showed that they could infect cultivated cells. One virus sample was found to be 48,500 years old.

"The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material. You could put a yoghurt in permafrost and it might still be edible 50,000 years later," says Jean-Michel Claverie.

Melting eternal permafrost

However, eternal permafrost in the world is undergoing changes. The upper layers of the planet's main reserves located in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska are melting due to the uneven impact of climate change on the Arctic. According to meteorologists, this region is warming several times faster than the average rate of global warming.

Arctic zombie viruses pose potential global threat, scientists warnMelting eternal permafrost (Photo: Wikipedia)

The main threat is considered not so much the melting of eternal permafrost as the disappearance of Arctic sea ice. This process promotes the development of shipping, transport infrastructure, and industry in Siberia.

Large mining operations are planned, during which extensive drilling will be carried out in the depths of eternal permafrost to obtain oil and ore. According to Claverie, these operations may release a significant number of pathogens.

Scientists believe that eternal permafrost, especially in deep layers, may contain viruses with an age of up to a million years. They are significantly older than our species, which appeared approximately 300,000 years ago.

"Our immune systems may have never been in contact with some of those microbes, and that is another worry," Claverie adds. The scenario of encountering an unknown virus that once infected Neanderthals, though unlikely, is now quite possible.