Science & Technology
Could a frozen Siberian 'zombie' virus cause a new pandemic ?
By T.K. Randall
January 21, 2024 · 13 comments
Sunset in Siberia. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 Dmitry A. Mottl
Viruses trapped in permafrost for thousands of years could potentially thaw out and infect modern humans.
The next pandemic could come, not from a Chinese wet market or secret government laboratory, but from deep within the Siberian permafrost, scientists have warned.
These so-called 'zombie' viruses (or Methuselah microbes) can lay dormant for thousands of years and then become active again once thawed out by rising global temperatures.
"At the moment, analyses of pandemic threats focus on diseases that might emerge in southern regions and then spread north," said geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie.
"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. There are viruses up there that have the potential to infect humans and start a new disease outbreak."
To combat this, scientists are preparing to set up a new Arctic monitoring network designed to identify outbreaks caused by ancient micro-organisms that have emerged from the ice.
Such viruses could be particularly dangerous because modern humans will have never been exposed to them and current medications may have only a limited effect.
What's more, studies have shown that ancient viruses are capable of infecting living cells - in one case researchers identified a viral strain that was almost 50,000 years old.
"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," said virologist Marion Koopmans who backed the move.
"We have to assume that something like this could happen."
Source: The Guardian
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