Zombie Viruses are waking up from permafrost after 50,000 years of sleep: know why


The thawing of permafrost in the Artic due to climate change is releasing Zombie viruses and pathogens, posing a new danger to public health. Virologist Jean-Michel Claveria has spent years studying “giant” viruses found in Siberian permafrost, some of which remain infectious. As the Arctic continues to warm, more dormant viruses may be freed, potentially bringing disastrous consequences.

Zombies Viruses
Pathogens that can survive permafrost have been discovered by scientists.

 

Even as the world recovers from the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, humanity is facing a potential epidemic that might halt the much-needed covid healing around the world. In Russia, researchers have been hard at work researching zombie viruses. There are infections that can persist in permafrost and pose a concern to humans who are not immune to these viruses and do not have drugs to cure them.

Jean-Michel Claverie is an emeritus professor at the School of Medicine at Aix-Marseille University. His findings highlight the bleak truth of global warming as it thaws permafrost that has been frozen for thousands of years. Jean-Michel, 73, has spent more than ten years researching “giant” viruses, including those discovered deep below layers of Siberian permafrost about 50,000 years ago.

Scientists have predicted that the Arctic might be ice-free by the summers of the 2030s because the world is already 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. Concerns have been raised about the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, such as methane. Less is known about the dangers of latent pathogens.

Claverie’s team published a study last year stating that they isolated many ancient viruses from Siberian permafrost and found that all of them were contagious.

‘Traditionally, we identify climate change hazards with threats emerging from the south, such as the development of vector-borne diseases from warmer tropical regions,’ Claverie said in an interview at his laboratory on the Luminy campus of Aix-Marseille University in France. However, it has become increasingly clear that there may be developing hazards from the north due to permafrost thawing, which releases germs, bacteria, and viruses.’

The most dangerous aspects of this are yet surfacing. A heat wave in Siberia in the summer of 2016 activated anthrax spores, resulting in scores of infections. The spread of illness killed thousands of reindeer and a child.

In July of this year, a separate group of scientists published their findings. The studies shown that even multicellular organisms can survive permafrost conditions by entering an inactive metabolic stage known as cryptobiosis. The scientists resurrected a 46,000-year-old roundworm from Siberian permafrost simply by rehydrating it.

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Claverie’s research, while not directly linked, shares a similar frontier. His laboratory, located on the suburbs of Marseille, France, resembles a curiosity shop or the home of an eccentric collector. Soil samples in plastic bottles compete for shelf space with simple brown liquids in glass vials, while his office displays a woolly rhino vertebra and pieces of a mammoth tusk discovered on a 2019 Siberian expedition. The presence of pricey equipment and a biosafety room, on the other hand, emphasises the seriousness of his work.

Claverie, who has a background in theoretical particle physics, applied computer science, and biochemistry, did not have formal training in immunology, which he believes provided him with a unique perspective. His journey into theoretical biology began in 1979, when he declined an opportunity to work with renowned MIT biophysicist Alexander Rich to track down Francis Crick, the Nobel-winning researcher who discovered the molecular structure of DNA. This coincidental meeting resulted in a job referral from Crick himself.

Claverie’s interest in permafrost, layers of frozen ground that can withstand temperatures below freezing for at least two years, was sparked by the rebirth of a flowering plant that had been frozen for 30,000 years. This inspired him to investigate the possibility of viruses resurrecting from old permafrost. He demonstrated the resuscitation of “live” viruses from Siberian permafrost in 2014, focusing on viruses that infect amoebas to avoid accidental human infection. In 2019, his team discovered 13 novel viruses from ancient Siberian permafrost samples, one of which had been frozen for over 48,500 years, highlighting their widespread prevalence.

While global warming endangers Russian infrastructure and contributes to natural disasters, the region is rich in natural resources. The intensive mining of permafrost in Russia raises worries about human contact with old diseases. The problem stems from unwittingly spreading risk when researching prospective dangers.

Some advocate for less resource-intensive alternatives, such as screening the Inuit community for diseases associated with permafrost. Larger organisations are also contemplating virus-hunting efforts due to fears of causing pandemics.

Claverie has determined not to return to Siberia, regardless of the outcome of the war. He believes he has communicated the danger and that additional ventures into the freezing depths would be risky.

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