Ancient microbes frozen for thousands of years in Siberia’s permafrost are thawing, researchers have warned, and could pose a “disastrous” threat to the human race.
Virologist Jean-Michel Claverie has warned that as global warming thaws ice that has remained frozen for tens of thousands of years before the dawn of civilization, ancient viruses could be released.
If an ancient disease killed Neanderthals, for example, their frozen corpses could still harbor infectious viruses, Claverie warns, and melting ice could reveal them.
Viruses have already appeared in mammoth wool, in Siberian mummies, in prehistoric wolves and in the lungs of a flu victim buried in Alaskan permafrost.
Scientists have highlighted six frozen pathogens that they believe pose the greatest threat to humanity.
Well-preserved, frozen viruses have turned up in mammoth wool, Siberian mummies, prehistoric wolves and the lungs of an Alaskan flu victim. Above, the first complete cave bear carcass, approximately 39,500 years old, unearthed from Yakutia permafrost in 2020
Melting permafrost in Siberia could unleash deadly pathogens
Virologist Jean-Michel Claverie
Clavérie said Bloomberg News: With climate change we are used to thinking about dangers that come from the south.
“We now realize there could be some danger coming from the north as the permafrost melts and releases microbes, bacteria and viruses.”
The threat of frozen diseases buried in the ice is real: A heat wave in Siberia in 2016 activated deadly anthrax spores that killed a child and thousands of reindeer.
Claverie’s team previously revived giant viruses from up to 48,000 years ago, and warned that there could be even older viruses in the ice, some of which could potentially infect humans.
Claverie’s team has focused for a decade on giant viruses found frozen in ice.
These “giant viruses” are a type of pandoravirus that can infect amoebas.
A quarter of the northern hemisphere lies on permanently frozen ground, known as permafrost, but large areas are now melting as the world warms.
Claverie’s team previously revived viruses from before the dawn of civilization (AP)
Previously, researchers had warned that global warming and melting ice could unearth diseases like smallpox frozen in victims’ corpses, with just a few infectious particles enough to revive the pathogen.
The planet is already 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times, and scientists have warned that the Arctic could have ice-free summers by the 2030s.
Clarverie’s team first revived viruses in 2014, focusing, for safety reasons, on viruses that could only infect amoebas.
Since 2019, Claverie has isolated 13 new viruses and warns that an ancient, unknown pathogen could have “disastrous” effects for the human race.
Claverie told Bloomberg: ‘Fifty thousand years back in time takes us to the moment when the Neanderthal disappeared from the region.
“If Neanderthals died of an unknown viral disease and this virus re-emerges, it could be a danger to us.”
The World Health Organization last year launched a global scientific process to consult on ‘Disease X’, an unknown pathogen that could cause an international epidemic.
Former chief medical advisor to the president Anthony Fauci has said the Disease X concept will allow researchers to focus on entire classes of viruses rather than individual strains.
Claverie has now said he will not return to the region, saying the research carries the risk of accidentally unleashing a new virus.
He said: “It would be good to establish a specialized way of following the Inuit population, for example, to see what kinds of diseases they contract.”
“And if something comes out of the permafrost, we’ll be able to catch it much more quickly.”