A Humanity may be about to face a new (and bizarre) pandemic threat.
There are ancient viruses frozen in Arctic permafrost that could one day be released by the Earth’s warming climate and trigger a major outbreak of disease, warn scientists interviewed by The Guardian. Variants of these microbes – or ‘zombie’ viruses as they are also known – have already been isolated by scientists who have raised fears of a new global medical emergency.
Concerned, scientists began planning an Arctic monitoring network that would identify the first cases of a disease caused by ancient microorganisms. In addition, it would provide quarantine and specialized medical treatment for infected people, in an attempt to contain an outbreak and prevent them from leaving the region.
“At the moment, analyzes of pandemic threats focus on diseases that could emerge in southern regions and then spread northwards”, said one of the scientists involved in the project, Jean-Michel Claverie, to The Guardian.
There are viruses with “the potential to infect humans and start a new outbreak of disease”he further warned.
This point was supported by virologist Marion Koopmans, who also explained that, even though we don’t know for sure what viruses can be found in the ice, “There is a real risk that there will be one capable of triggering a disease outbreak – for example, an ancient form of polio. We have to assume that something like this could happen”.
Back in 2014, Jean-Michel Claverie proved, together with a team of scientists, that viruses frozen in Siberia could still infect single-celled organisms, despite having been buried underground for thousands of years. Other studies have also revealed the existence of several different viral strains capable of infecting cells in culture. One of the virus samples was 48,500 years old.
“The viruses we isolated were only capable of infecting amoebas and did not pose any risk to humans”Claverie explained to The Guardian, highlighting that “this does not mean that other viruses – currently frozen – are not capable of triggering disease in humans. We have identified genomic traces of ‘pox’ and herpes, which are well-known human pathogens, for example”.
Permafrost covers one-fifth of the Northern Hemisphere and is made up of soil that has been kept at subzero temperatures for long periods. Some layers remained frozen for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists discovered.
But the world’s permafrost is changing. The top layers of the planet’s main reserves – in Canada, Siberia and Alaska – are melting as climate change disproportionately affects the Arctic. According to meteorologists, the region is warming several times faster than the average rate of increase in global warming.
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