What is the ‘zombie virus’ found in Russia – and should we be worried?

What is the ‘zombie virus’ found in Russia – and should we be worried?

The words “zombie virus discovered in Russian ice” sound like something out of a horror movie – although it’s pretty hard to shock any of us after the pandemic.

But scientists published research this week showing that viruses that have been frozen in Siberian permafrost for tens of thousands of years are reviving.

Researchers from France, Germany and Russia they revived 13 new types of viruses that were on ice in the Siberian soil between 27,000 and 48,500 years ago.

They said their work poses negligible risk to humans – unlike the work of other scientists looking for ancient viruses in the frozen remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos or prehistoric horses.

There is a Pandora’s box – they have the potential to be human pathogens

Prof. Birgitta Evengard, Department of Clinical Microbiology, Umea University, Sweden

But their results could, they wrote, “be extrapolated to many others DNA viruses that can infect humans or animals”.

“It is therefore likely that ancient permafrost … will release these unknown viruses after thawing,” they said in bioRxivonline research portal.

“How long these viruses can remain infectious after being exposed to external conditions and what is the probability that they will encounter and infect a suitable host during that interval is still impossible to estimate.

“But the risk will certainly increase in the context of global warming, when permafrost melting will accelerate and the Arctic will be populated by more people due to industrial ventures.”

Viruses ‘back from the dead’

So-called zombie viruses are not a threat to humans, as they are the types that infect only microorganisms, but other pathogens that would be released in the future with the melting of permafrost could, scientists say, pose a risk to humans.

Reports from Greenpeace, an environmental organization, even asked whether such “return from the dead” pathogens could lead to a new pandemic.

The revelations echo the 1993 film Jurassic Parkin which scientists cloned dinosaurs using DNA taken from insects preserved in amber ― only for the creatures to wreak havoc on humanity.

Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is found mainly in Alaska, Canada and Siberia and covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, but areas are melting as the climate warms.

A number of other research groups are studying pathogens, including bacteria and the larger organisms that are released as a result.

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15,000-year-old viruses have been discovered in an ice cap in Tibet, according to research published last year.

Even more extraordinary, reports from 2018 show that tiny nematode worms have been brought back to life from Siberian soil samples that had been frozen for up to 42,000 years.

The researchers behind the study were confident that the creatures, which began to move and eat after being kept at 20°C in Petri dishes containing nutrient medium, were not there because of sample contamination.

Among those interested in disease threats from permafrost microorganisms is prof. Birgitta Evengard, from the Department of Clinical Microbiology at Umea University in Sweden.

Professor Evengard helped organize the 2019 conference, Understanding and Responding to Global Health Security Risks from Microbial Threats in the Arctic.

Pandora’s box

She said it’s not possible to say that some pathogens found in thawing permafrost would definitely pose a threat to humans, but there’s a chance they might.

“There is a Pandora’s box – they have the potential to be human pathogens,” she said, adding that there will be spillover into the environment.

“In Siberia you have three rivers that carry debris from the permafrost into the Bering Sea, ocean currents that are quite busy.

“They’re going to take it around the world in a few weeks. People don’t realize that. The world is very, very connected by all the ecosystems – the oceans, the land and the air.”

The risks are heightened as research published a few months ago revealed that the Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the rest of the globe since 1979, a finding that Professor Evengard described as alarming.

“It means that what happens in the Arctic is the driver of what will happen in the rest of the world,” she said.

It was important, she added, for scientists to have access to regions like Siberia so they could analyze what was going on.

In addition to potentially releasing pathogens into the environment and causing land areas to collapse, melting permafrost risks accelerating climate change.

As the soil thaws, these microbes cause the release of carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, as they consume organic matter in the soil.

Updated: December 6, 2022 at 4:04 am



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