Scientists warn long-frozen 'zombie virus' is 'public health threat' amid thaw

Scientists warn long-frozen ‘zombie virus’ is ‘public health threat’ amid thaw

They’re potentially opening Pandora’s pox.

French scientists have raised fears of a new 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 dire in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an old unknown virus,” reads the “viral” study, which has not yet been evaluated by experts. peers. 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 large areas of permafrost – permanently frozen ground covering a quarter of the northern hemisphere. This had the alarming effect of “releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years” – including potentially harmful pathogens.

“Part of this organic matter also consists of resurrected cellular microbes (prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes) as well as viruses that have lain dormant since prehistoric times,” the researchers write.

Jean-Michel Claverie, professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, co-author of the study, issued a warning to medical authorities about the lack of significant updates on “living” viruses in permafrost since the original studies from 2014 and 2015, the Sun reported. “This incorrectly suggests that such events are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ are not a public health threat,” the research team wrote in their findings.

“The situation would be much more dire in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an old, unknown virus,” the researchers write.
AFP via Getty Images

In order to study these awakening organisms, scientists have, perhaps paradoxically, revived some of these so-called “zombie viruses” from Siberian permafrost. The oldest – dubbed Pandoravirus yedoma after the mythological character Pandora, whose curiosity led her to open a problem box, and the type of soil it was found in – was 48,500 years old, a record age for a frozen virus reverting to a state where it has the potential to infect other organisms. This smashes the previous record held by a 30,000-year-old virus discovered by the same team in Siberia in 2013.

The new strain is one of 13 viruses described in the study, each with its own genome, Science Alert reported. While the Pandoravirus was discovered under the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Alas in Yakutia, Russia, others have been found everywhere from mammoth fur to the intestines of a Siberian wolf.

After studying live cultures, scientists have found that all “zombie viruses” have the potential to be infectious and therefore pose a “health threat”. They posit that we may see more COVID-19-like pandemics in the future as the ever-melting permafrost continues to release long-dormant viruses like a microbial Captain America.

“It is therefore legitimate to wonder about the risk that old viral particles remain infectious and re-circulate through the thawing of old layers of permafrost,” they write. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious circle as the organic matter released by melting ice breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect and accelerating the melting.

There are potentially more infectious viruses on the ice.
There are potentially more infectious viruses on the ice – it melts.

The newly thawed virus may just be the tip of the epidemiological iceberg, as there are likely other hibernating viruses yet to be discovered.

“If the authors do indeed isolate live viruses from ancient permafrost, it’s likely that even smaller, simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for eons,” University of California virologist Eric Delwart told Reuters. New Scientist.

Further research is needed to determine how infectious these unknown viruses are when exposed to light, heat, oxygen, and other outdoor environmental factors.

It’s not the first long-dormant organism to be awakened from its freezing slumber. In June 2021, Russian scientists resurrected “zombie” worms frozen for 24,000 years in the Arctic.

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