Long-frozen ‘zombie virus’ a ‘public health threat’ amid thaw
They potentially open a Pandora’s box.
French scientists have sparked fears of another pandemic after reviving a “zombie virus” that had been trapped under a frozen lake in Russia for a record 50,000 years.
“The situation would be much more catastrophic in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an ancient unknown virus,” reads the “viral” study, which has not yet been reviewed. The new research was led by microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Science Alert reported.
According to the preliminary article, global warming is causing the irreversible thawing of vast swathes of permafrost — permanently frozen land covering a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. This has the worrying effect of “releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years” – including potentially harmful pathogens.
“Some of this organic matter also consists of reanimated cellular microbes (prokaryotes, single-celled eukaryotes) as well as viruses that have remained latent since prehistoric times,” the researchers wrote.
University of Aix-Marseille professor Jean-Michel Claverie, co-author of the study, warned medical authorities about the lack of significant updates on “living” viruses in the permafrost since initial studies in 2014 and 2015. reports the Sun. “This falsely suggests that such events are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ are not a threat to public health,” the research team wrote in their findings.
To study these awakening organisms, scientists have, perhaps paradoxically, revived some of these so-called “zombie viruses” from the Siberian permafrost. The oldest – called Pandoravirus yedoma after the mythological character Pandora, whose curiosity led her to open a problematic box, and the type of soil in which it was found – was 48,500 years old, a record age for a frozen virus to return to a state where it has the potential to infect other organisms . This breaks the previous record held by a virus discovered at 30,000 years from the same team in Siberia in 2013.
The new strain is one of 13 viruses identified in the study, each of which has its own genome, Science Alert reported. While the pandoravirus was found under the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Alas in Yakutia, Russia, others have been found everywhere, from the fur of a mammoth to the intestines of a Siberian wolf.
After studying living cultures, scientists determined that all “zombie viruses” have the potential to be infectious and therefore a “health threat.” They postulate that we can see more Pandemics in the style of COVID-19 in the future, as the ever-melting permafrost continues to release long-dormant viruses like a microbial Captain America.
“Therefore, it is legitimate to consider the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and returning to circulation through the thawing of ancient permafrost layers,” they wrote. Unfortunately, this is a vicious cycle, as the organic matter released by the melting ice decomposes into carbon dioxide and methane, which further increases the greenhouse effect and accelerates melting.
The recently thawed virus may be only the tip of the epidemiological iceberg, as there are likely more hibernating viruses yet to be discovered.
“If the authors do indeed isolate living viruses from ancient permafrost, it is likely that even smaller, simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for centuries,” virologist Eric Delwart of the University of California said New Scientist.
More research is needed to determine the level of infectivity of these unknown viruses when exposed to light, heat, oxygen and other external environmental factors.
This is not the first long-dormant organism to awaken from its frozen slumber. In June 2021, Russian scientists resurrected “zombie” worms which was frozen for 24,000 years in the Arctic.