Scientists reactivate 48,500-year-old ‘zombie virus’ locked in permafrost

The thawing of the permafrost risks releasing very old viruses, sometimes still infectious. A pre-published study warns of a potential “threat to public safety”.

The effects of global warming are accumulating. In addition to the rising waters, the proliferation of forest fires or the disruption of agricultural production, it risks the release of “zombie viruses”. This is the conclusion of a pre-published study (which has therefore not yet been peer-reviewed) on 10 November.

Led by CNRS microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic, a team of researchers studied 13 viruses found in Siberian permafrost. According to the study, “a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is covered by permanently frozen soil”: this frozen soil is called permafrost or permafrost. It covers, for example, large parts of Canada, Siberia and Alaska.

The risk of an unknown virus

Scientists have found that at least one remains infectious even after spending 48,500 years in gel. However, global warming is causing the permafrost to thaw, and according to the UN, the latter has already begun. Thawing can therefore lead to the release of viruses that are still infectious.

“Fortunately, we can reasonably hope that an epidemic caused by a reactivated prehistoric pathogenic bacterium can be quickly controlled by the modern antibiotics at our disposal,” write the study’s authors.

But “the situation would be much more catastrophic in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an ancient unknown virus”, they add.

A “threat to public health”

The study emphasizes that it is still impossible to estimate how long these viruses can remain infectious “once exposed to external conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat)” and what would be the probability “that they encounter and infecting a suitable host in the meantime”.

However, scientists warn that “the risk can only increase with global warming, as thawing of permafrost will continue to accelerate and more and more people will populate the Arctic in the wake of industrial enterprises”.

They therefore believe that it would therefore be wrong to believe that “zombie viruses” do not pose a “threat to public health”.

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