According to researchers, the melting of permafrost caused by climate change could pose a new threat to humanity, including the revival of a zombie virus that was frozen almost 48,500 years ago under a lake, surpassing the previous record set by the same researchers in 2013, who discovered a 30,000-year-old virus in Siberia.
A team of European researchers examined ancient samples that were found deep within permafrost in Russian Siberia. They revived and characterized 13 new pathogens, which they termed “zombie virus,” and discovered that they remained infectious despite spending millennia trapped in the frozen ground.
Scientists have long recognized that permafrost melting caused by atmospheric warming can worsen climate change by releasing gases like methane that have previously been trapped. It is still unclear what this means for dormant pathogens, however.
In an article posted to the preprint repository bioRxiv that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, the authors wrote:
“It is thus likely that ancient permafrost will release these unknown viruses upon thawing.” “How long these viruses could remain infectious once exposed to outdoor conditions, and how likely they will be to encounter and infect a suitable host in the interval, is yet impossible to estimate.”
“But the risk is bound to increase in the context of global warming when permafrost thawing will keep accelerating, and more people will be populating the Arctic in the wake of industrial ventures,”the researchers concluded.
Researchers from Russia, Germany, and France said that reviving the viruses they studied wouldn’t pose a real biological threat because they targeted viruses that can infect amoebas. It’s more problematic if a virus revives that can infect animals or humans, they said, and their work can be extrapolated to prove it.