London: A warming Earth and increase in human activity like shipping, mining may soon release ancient zombie viruses trapped in permafrost in Siberia, triggering a new pandemic, warns a study.
Known for years as ‘Methuselah microbes’, the viruses have stayed dormant in permafrost for tens of thousands of years, but carry the risk of propagating and spreading diseases.
With 2023 being the warmest year on record, the risk of permafrost thawing and eventually releasing the zombie viruses is higher than ever, said researchers from the Aix-Marseille University in the south of France.
“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, a geneticist from the varsity, was quoted as saying to the Guardian.
“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.”
Agreeing to this, virologist Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam said: “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,” she was quoted as saying.
Permafrost covers a fifth of the northern hemisphere and is made up of soil that has been kept at temperatures below zero for long periods. Some layers have remained frozen for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists have discovered.
“The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material,” Claverie was quoted as saying to the Observer.
He said that the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, caused by global warming, posed a massive risk to human health.
“That is allowing increases in shipping, traffic and industrial development in Siberia. Huge mining operations are being planned, and are going to drive vast holes into the deep permafrost to extract oil and ores.
“Those operations will release vast amounts of pathogens that still thrive there. Miners will walk in and breathe the viruses. The effects could be calamitous,’ he told the newspaper.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that the Arctic’s average temperature has already risen at a rate three times higher than the global average, and is the region with the highest rate of average temperature change.
Last year, scientists from Russia, Germany and France identified six ancient diseases trapped in permafrost that had the potential to wreak untold havoc on the world.