TechAwakening prehistoric viruses from Siberian permafrost: Potential pandemic risk and safeguards

Awakening prehistoric viruses from Siberian permafrost: Potential pandemic risk and safeguards

Permafrost - illustrative picture
Permafrost - illustrative picture
Images source: © Getty Images | Galen Rowell
1:11 AM EST, February 15, 2024

The permafrost spans almost 7.3 million square miles, approximately one-fifth of the northern hemisphere's land. It extends through Alaska and Canada and reaches as far as Russia. Its function is often likened to a prehistoric refrigerator or even a time capsule. The cold, oxygen-free, and light-free environment is perfect for preserving biological material.

Permafrost as a time capsule

Preserved in the permafrost are mummified remains of numerous extinct animals and a wealth of microorganisms, including viruses and bacteria, hitherto unknown to humankind. There is a possibility that some of these could potentially be harmful to humans and animals, a concern that experts share. Some speculate that due to climate change, which has led to the permafrost melting, the situation could be akin to opening Pandora's box.

Moreover, global warming could result in the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, thus promoting shipping and catalyzing the growth of industrial activities in Siberia. Exploration of oil and ore deposits in the permafrost may lead to the formation of massive, deep cavities that could facilitate the release of pathogens.

In 2022, French virologist Jean-Michel Claverie and his team demonstrated that viruses and bacteria from thousands of years ago can be reanimated. Their research gained worldwide attention, especially when they discovered a virus from 48.5 thousand years ago, ostensibly the oldest virus, in their samples from the Siberian permafrost and successfully "awoke" it. Speaking to WP Tech, Claverie, a seasoned investigator of prehistoric viruses, acknowledged that he continues to study further into ancient permafrost layers, including samples from Antarctica.

Claverie is well aware that there's a real risk of a significant pandemic threat for humanity, owing to the prehistoric viruses that our species has yet to encounter and, therefore, has no or limited immunity against. He imagines the global upheaval that such a virus could cause if it were as contagious as SARS-CoV2.

However, Claverie clarified, "We do not aim to resurrect dangerous viruses. We are aware that within the same samples we handle, viruses are capable of infecting animals." So, how can we avert the worst-case scenario of the release of ancient viruses?

"We should establish a medical network in the polar regions — serving the indigenous population and surrounding mining sites — to monitor the emergence of 'new' (or 'eradicated') diseases. Additionally, a quarantine facility should be in place, where potential threats could be locally assessed before the revived virus has a chance to propagate among people widely," explained the French virologist. He noted that viruses typically become contagious to humans in two stages: initially, they infect humans one after another before acquiring the capability for direct contact or airborne transmission.

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