Permafrost thaws and old viruses emerge

Scientists have found at least 13 “sleeping” pathogens dating back 48,500 years.

Researchers found 13 unknown pathogens that had been trapped in the previously frozen soil of Russia’s vast Siberian region, one stranded under a lake more than 48,500 years ago.

The thawing of the permafrost due to climate change can expose a large number of ancient viruses, European specialists mentioned.

In a report, The Washington Post said experts highlighted a potential new danger: what they called “zombie” viruses.

They detailed in a document published on the bioRxiv server that these vectors infect amoebas, a type of unicellular protist (in fact, this specificity is intentional) and are harmless to people.

But the research, not without controversy, shows that viruses frozen tens of thousands of years ago may still be active pathogens and that this accounts for the grave risk that thawing permafrost poses to humans.

According to the Post, Jean-Michel Claverie, co-author of the study and emeritus professor of virology at Aix-Marseille Université in France, said that “every time we search, we find a virus. We know that every time we go looking for viruses, infectious viruses in the permafrost, we’re going to find some.”

“It is still impossible to estimate how long these viruses could remain infectious once exposed to outdoor conditions,” they mentioned, and the actual risk of infection to a human or animal cannot yet be determined.

“But the risk will undoubtedly increase in the context of global warming when the permafrost thaw continues to accelerate and more people populate the Arctic as a result of industrial advances,” they wrote, recalled La Vanguardia.

Virologists not involved in the research said the specter of future pandemics unleashing from the Siberian steppe ranks low on the list of current threats to public health, the Post recalled.