Scientists fear large pandemic due to permafrost virus release into atmosphere

Global warming, scientists say, could cause zombie viruses from Russia's Siberian permafrost to be released into the atmosphere.

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Scientists fear large pandemic due to permafrost virus release into atmosphere
© Sean Gallup / Staff Getty Images News

In the Arctic permafrost in Siberia there are apparently Ancient viruses that have remained frozen for millennia. Scientists fear that the release of such viruses into the atmosphere due to global warming could cause a new major global pandemic.

And this fear comes after researchers isolated very ancient strains of microbes, also known as zombie viruses, that could cause an epidemic from an ancient era.

Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University told the Guardian: "At the moment, analyzes of pandemic threats focus on diseases that could emerge in southern regions and then spread to the north. In contrast, little attention has been paid to an epidemic that could emerge in the far north and then move south. There are viruses up there that have the potential to infect humans and start a new epidemic."

Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, echoed her colleague: "We don't know what viruses are out there in the permafrost, but I think there is a real risk that there could be one that could trigger an epidemic, for example of an ancient form of polio. We have to assume that something like this could happen."

What is permafros and where is it found?

Permafrost is present primarily in the Arctic regions, near the poles, but also in the high mountains. Permafrost can reach depths of 1500 m in northern Siberia and a few hundred meters in Alaska and Canada. Permafrost can be found in cold deserts and continues beyond the coast under shallow cold seas.

This is how scientists will monitor the Arctic to detect the first cases of a disease caused by ancient microorganisms. Above the permanent permafrost an active surface layer can be found, extending in depth from a few centimeters to several meters. The superficial layer is sensitive to seasonal climate changes, partially thawing during the summer period and then refreezing in the winter, while the deep layer has not thawed since the last glaciation, about 10,000 years ago, thus constituting a product of glaciation preserved to this day.

Arctic regions still preserve microbial habitats that serve as natural laboratories for understanding the mechanisms of microbial adaptation to extreme conditions; This is despite the fact that they are changing rapidly, as they are warming 2 to 3 times faster than the global average. Research shows how mechanistic understanding of genetic exchange between microbes under stressful conditions shows evidence for virus-mediated horizontal gene transfer.

Climate warming observed in Siberia and the Arctic and thawing permafrost could result in the release of pathogens trapped in permafrost into the atmosphere. Representing a possible mechanism of genesis of viruses that could emerge in the future due to the development of global warming of our planet in the decades to come.