They’re potentially prying open Pandora’s pox.
French scientists have sparked fears of yet another 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 disastrous in the case of plant, animal, or human diseases caused by the revival of an ancient unknown virus,” reads the “viral” study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed. The new research was helmed by microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Science Alert reported.
According to the preliminary paper, global warming is causing vast swaths of the permafrost — permanently frozen ground covering one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere — to irreversibly thaw. This has 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 revived cellular microbes (prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes) as well as viruses that remained dormant since prehistorical times,” the researchers write.
Aix-Marseille University professor Jean-Michel Claverie, co-author of the study, issued a warning to medical authorities about the lack of significant updates on “live” viruses in permafrost since original studies in 2014 and 2015, the Sun reported. “This wrongly suggests that such occurrences are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ are not a public health threat,” the research team wrote in their findings.
In order to study these awakening organisms, scientists have, perhaps paradoxically, revived some of these so-called “zombie viruses” from the Siberian permafrost. The oldest — dubbed Pandoravirus yedoma after the mythological character Pandora, whose curiosity led her to open a box of trouble, and the type of soil it was found in — was 48,500 years old, a record age for a frozen virus returning to a state where it has the potential to infect other organisms. This shatters 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 outlined in the study, each of which possessed its own genome, Science Alert reported. While the Pandoravirus was discovered below 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 the live cultures, scientists found that all the “zombie viruses” have the potential to be infectious, and are therefore a “health threat.” They postulate that we could see more COVID-19-style pandemics in the future as ever-melting permafrost continues to release long-dormant viruses like a microbial Captain America.
“It is therefore legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by the thawing of ancient permafrost layers,” they write. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle as organic matter released by the thawing ice decomposes into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect and accelerating the melt.