Arctic “zombie viruses” could trigger a new pandemic | Polarjournal
Image of Pithovirus sibericum isolated from a 30,000-year-old permafrost borehole in 2014. (Photo: Jean-Michel Claverie)

Scientists are warning of so-called “zombie viruses”, also known as Methuselah microbes, which are frozen in the Arctic permafrost. Since these bacteria and viruses have been frozen for thousands of years at sub-zero temperatures and low oxygen levels, they could be released when temperatures rise and trigger serious disease outbreaks on the planet.

Researchers such as Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel are digging into the depths of the Siberian permafrost to decipher the microbial life in it and understand the impact of changes on our planet’s climate and ecosystem. Their work has already led to the resurrection of more than a dozen different viruses, one of which had been in hibernation for 48,500 years.

The melting of the Arctic permafrost could therefore lead to new pandemics. To anticipate the threat, the researchers are setting up an Arctic monitoring network to detect early cases of a disease caused by what the media calls “zombie viruses” before a feared outbreak occurs.

Jean-Michel Claverie: “Thawing permafrost releases microbes from the Neanderthal era, which can pose a risk to public health.”

Jean-Michel Claverie, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Genomics at the University of Aix-Marseille, says in an interview: “We are now face to face with a specific threat and must be prepared to deal with it. It’s as simple as that”. Scientists have isolated strains of such Methuselah microbes and warn that they have the potential to trigger disease outbreaks.

The viruses we isolated could only infect amoebae and posed no threat to humans,” said Claverie. “However, this does not mean that other viruses that are currently frozen in the permafrost do not also have the potential to cause disease in humans.”

According to Claverie, researchers have so far concentrated on diseases that occur in southern regions and could then spread northwards. However, he believes that too little attention has so far been paid to an outbreak that could occur in the far north and then spread southwards. He warned: “There are viruses up there (in the Arctic, editor’s note) that have the potential to infect people and trigger a new disease outbreak.”

Scientists in search of viruses. (Photo: AZERTAC)

Melting permafrost causes severe damage

Some layers of the Arctic permafrost have been frozen for thousands of years due to the sub-zero temperatures. In addition to structural damage in cities and traffic routes, the thawing layers can contain viruses that are foreign to humans. Since permafrost can preserve biological material, these viruses can still pose a threat to the world. Climate change is melting the Arctic permafrost and there is a risk of such “zombie viruses” being released.

Jean-Michel Claverie continued: “Our immune system may never have been in contact with some of these microbes, and that is another cause for concern. The scenario of an unknown virus that once infected Neanderthals coming back to us is unlikely, but is yet a real possibility”.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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