Arctic zombie viruses in Siberia could spark new pandemic, scientists warn

Scientific Director of the PDPC, Dr. Marion Koopmans, has been interviewed by the Guardian: 

Threat of outbreak from microbes trapped in permafrost for millennia raised by increased Siberian shipping activity.

Humanity is facing a bizarre new pandemic threat, scientists have warned. Ancient viruses frozen in the Arctic permafrost could one day be released by Earth’s warming climate and unleash a major disease outbreak, they say.

Strains of these Methuselah microbes – or zombie viruses as they are also known – have already been isolated by researchers who have raised fears that a new global medical emergency could be triggered – not by an illness new to science but by a disease from the distant past.


“At the moment, analyses of pandemic threats focus on diseases that might emerge in southern regions and then spread north,” said geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University. “By contrast, little attention has been given to an outbreak that might emerge in the far north and then travel south – and that is an oversight, I believe. There are viruses up there that have the potential to infect humans and start a new disease outbreak.”

This point was backed by virologist Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. “We don’t know what viruses are lying out there in the permafrost, but I think there is a real risk that there might be one capable of triggering a disease outbreak – say of an ancient form of polio. We have to assume that something like this could happen.”

In 2014, Claverie led a team of scientists who isolated live viruses in Siberia and showed they could still infect single-cell organisms – even though they had been buried in permafrost for thousands of years. Further research, published last year, revealed the existence of several different viral strains from seven different sites in Siberia and showed these could infect cultured cells. One virus sample was 48,500 years old.

“The viruses we isolated were only able to infect amoebae and posed no risk to humans,” said Claverie. “However, that does not mean that other viruses – currently frozen in the permafrost – might not be able to trigger illnesses in humans. We have identified genomic traces of poxviruses and herpesviruses, which are well known human pathogens, for example.”


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Source: the Guardian 21-01-2024