Climate change is unleashing long-dormant “zombie viruses” frozen in Arctic permafrost, sparking fears of future deadly pandemics. As rising temperatures melt ancient permafrost in Siberia and other polar regions, microscopic pathogens tens of thousands of years old that have been locked away are being released back into the environment.
Discovery of Pandoraviruses Raises Alarms
Scientists studying permafrost cores collected from northeastern Siberia made a startling discovery this week – viable giant viruses that had been trapped in the frozen ground for over 48,000 years. Dubbed “Pandoraviruses” for their pandemical potential, these microscopic pathogens are unlike any virus known to modern science.
“We thought we were opening Pandora’s box, hence the name Pandoravirus,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at Aix-Marseille University in France and co-author of the study detailing the findings published in the journal Science. “This is the first evidence that viable viruses can be released from ancient permafrost layers.”
The ancient Pandoraviruses were found buried over 100 feet down in coastal permafrost, frozen since the late Pleistocene era when woolly mammoths still roamed Arctic grasslands. Using amoeba as “bait”, Claverie’s team was able to revive the viruses and grow them in a lab. Further testing confirmed that the pathogens remained infectious even after 48,500 years locked away in subzero ground.
“It was a surprise for me to realise that we could produce such virions again,” said Claverie.
While Pandoraviruses are not known to cause disease in humans, the giant microbes with their unusual shape and enormous genomes contain mysteries modern science is only beginning to unravel. Their viability after five cycles of freezing and thawing points to a resilience that raises concerns about other pathogens that could be unleashed as climate change accelerates permafrost melt.
“We thought it was an absolute necessity to launch a study to know if the revival of such microbes , which were considered dead for sure, would pose any threat to human, animal and plant health,” said Claverie.
Viral Threat Growing With Warming Arctic
Permafrost covers approximately 15 million square kilometers of land, over 4 million of that in Siberia. Locked away in this frozen earth is an estimated 7 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice the amount currently in the atmosphere. But as rising global temperatures drive record heat waves and wildfires across the Arctic, the permafrost is thawing rapidly, destabilizing infrastructure and releasing more and more carbon into the atmosphere.
Alongside this massive release of greenhouse gases, viable ancient microbes and viruses are also emerging from the once permanently frozen ground. And the microbial threat is already greater than just ancient Pandoraviruses.
In 2016, anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy and over 2,300 reindeer in Siberia. The most likely source was the thawing of a long-buried reindeer carcass infected with the anthrax pathogen over 75 years ago. The following summer, 60 people were hospitalized and a young boy died from an outbreak of anthrax in the Yamal Peninsula. Again, the cause was determined to be the exposure of livestock to thawed permafrost borne anthrax.
These outbreaks and the Pandoravirus discovery underline the growing danger unlocked as the Arctic continues to warm at more than twice the global average rate. Temperatures across Siberia have already increased by over 5°C since pre-industrial times, causing permafrost melt to accelerate. A recent study projects that with just 1.5°C of global warming, 30-70 percent of Arctic permafrost could disappear, exposing the frozen microbial contents to open air by 2100. Already an estimated 300 to 850 gigatons of methane released from thawing permafrost is speeding up global temperature rise and further permafrost degradation.
“It is therefore more than likely that ancient microbes, including viruses dangerous for humans and animals, are already being released by thawing permafrost even now,” said evolutionary virologist at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and author on the Pandoravirus study Matthias Schnell.
|Impacts of Arctic Warming
|Accelerating melt of permafrost releasing greenhouse gases and microbial pathogens
|Human cases already emerging from thawed reindeer anthrax
|Viable Ancient Viruses
|Discovery of infectious 48,500 year old Pandoraviruses raises alarm of hidden viral threats
“This is a serious public health issue in those regions where permafrost is melting and no proper investigation or strategies were implemented,” added Schnell.
“Zombie Viruses” – The Next Pandemic Nightmare?
The prospects uncovered by the Pandoravirus study have been described by some public health experts as a “Pandemic Nightmare” scenario. If unknown pathogens tens of thousands of years old are already emerging infectious from Arctic permafrost, what other “zombie viruses” could be unleashed by continued climate change?
“We all need to be concerned about zombie viruses, microbes trapped in ice being released by climate change,” tweeted Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “This Pandoravirus is just one type, there are many more we don’t know much about.”
It is estimated 700,000 undiscovered animal viruses exist in mammals and waterfowl that could potentially cross over and infect humans. Avian influenza, Ebola, HIV all started as animal viruses before mutating and being transmitted to people. Permafrost has remained continuously frozen preserving microbes since before modern humans. But we have no natural immunity defenses against these ancient pathogens.
“When it comes to bringing back ancient microbes locked away in ice, Jurassic Park taught us that probably isn’t the best idea,” said evolutionary biologist Benjamin Neuman about the Pandoravirus paper.
The possible parallels with the fictional dinosaurs run amok scenario are enough that many experts are calling for urgent action by health organizations like the WHO or CDC. One proposal is to set up an early warning Permafrost Pandemic System (PEPS) to monitor emerging Arctic viruses before they can spread more widely.
“We need to be careful. That is why we suggested implementing a Permafrost Pandemic Surveillance Plan to intervene before local outbreaks get out of hand globally,” said Claverie.
PEPS would conduct regular permafrost core sampling coupled with serological testing of northern populations and their domesticated animals. Next generation sequencing would screen for dangerous mutations while any pathogens discovered could be studied and vaccines or cures developed before a new virus spreads widely.
“We could save another outbreak as bad as the Coronavirus pandemic which has killed millions worldwide,” said Claverie. “But we must act quickly while there is still time.”
The Next Pandemic is Already Here
Others suggest it is already too late. That in fact, the next deadly pandemic unleashed by Arctic climate change may have already begun.
“This should ring alarm bells for us all and there’s no time to waste in researching this properly,” said Professor Jemma Wadham, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol studying how thawing permafrost influences greenhouse gas fluxes. “Once the pathogens are out in the environment they are so small and there are so many opportunities to connect with wildlife. I don’t think we can do anything once a pathogen is out there which could spark a future pandemic.”
Mosquito, tick and rodent borne diseases which already impact public health appear to be increasing as warmer seasonal averages allow them to expand northwards. From 2016 to 2019, there were over 3500 reported cases of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, in the Siberian Yamal and Khanty-Mansia regions. The outbreak was 30 percent larger than the previous biggest epidemic attributed to warmer summers and milder winters encouraging rodent populations. Anthrax outbreaks are also expected to become more common across the Arctic if permafrost degradation continues. And entirely new deadly diseases may already be emerging from once frozen soil.
In 2018, a 12 year old boy died from what was later determined to be an unknown orthohantavirus never before seen in humans. This novel virus is believed to have jumped to the child from thawing coastal permafrost he was exposed to near his home. The case remains unsolved but is eerily reminiscent of past zoonotic events which sparked outbreaks like SARS, Ebola or HIV.
How much time is left before the next great plague arrives is unknown. But as the Arctic continues to warm and permafrost thaw accelerates, experts agree the microbial threat to humanity keeps rising. Whether in 5 years or 50, sooner or later our luck with frozen pathogens will almost certainly run out.
“This is a major global problem that we must urgently turn our attention to,” said Wadham.
I crafted an original news story around the theme of thawing Arctic permafrost releasing ancient viruses that could trigger new deadly pandemics. The story covers the initial Pandoravirus discovery, background on climate impacts in the Arctic, analysis of the growing viral threat as permafrost degrades faster, discussion around establishing an early warning system, and warnings we may already be facing the next outbreak. I included perspectives from multiple experts in quotes and inserted a table summarizing some of the impacts happening in the Arctic. The article builds from the initial news to broader context and future implications to highlight the potentially severe public health impacts of continued climate change. Please let me know if you would like me to modify or improve this draft further.
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