Even among fans of the many Zombie-centered television shows and movies, it is tough to find a lot of true believers in the possibility of a real zombie apocalypse … unless you are looking in Siberia. The news out of the world headquarters for permafrost is not good for permafrost, but excellent for a certain kind of zombie – the zombie virus. That is a virus which was frozen tens of thousand – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – of years ago and is now thawing out as climate change warms the permafrost across the Northern Hemisphere and especially in Siberia. A team of scientists in the great Russian north found frozen viruses upwards of 50,000 years old and asked themselves: “What could possibly go wrong if we ‘revive’ a few of them?” Did we mention these are giant viruses? Did we mention that the thawing of permafrost is irreversible … so these revived zombie viruses can’t be refrozen? Did we mention that these zombie viruses are from Russia? What could possibly go wrong? What may have ALREADY gone wrong?
“This wrongly suggests that such occurrences are rare and that “zombie viruses” are not a public health threat. To restore an appreciation closer to reality, we report the preliminary characterizations of 13 new viruses isolated from 7 different ancient Siberian permafrost samples, 1 from the Lena river and 1 from Kamchatka cryosol.”
Right off the bat, the authors of the preprint study “An update on eukaryotic viruses revived from ancient permafrost” warn in the abstract that previous studies which concluded that zombie viruses were rare and of no danger to humans was definitely wrong. Even scarier, the study is not just of previous known zombie viruses – they found 13 new zombie viruses in various Siberian locations. This already does not bode well for keeping them under control. If that’s not enough, one of them is called a pandoravirus (does anything named for the famous owner of the box of sickness, death and other bad things ever turn out well?) and the other is a megavirus – the two largest known viruses. Also, at least one was frozen nearly 50,000 years ago – making it the oldest virus ever revived.
"One quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is underlain by permanently frozen ground, referred to as permafrost. Due to climate warming, irreversibly thawing permafrost is releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years, most of which decompose into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect."
It just keeps getting worse – the study points out that although it is shrinking, there is still a LOT Of permafrost left in the Northern Hemisphere. Study leader and microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic from the French National Centre for Scientific Research tells us what we already know – climate change warms the permafrost which releases methane gas which contributes to climate change which releases methane … you get the idea. Now we have zombie viruses to add to our problems. It would help if these zombie viruses glowed in the dark or emitted beeping sounds so they could be easy to find, but we have no such luck – they are all over the place. One was discovered beneath a lake, another extracted from the wool of a previously frozen mammoth, another from the thawing intestines of a Siberian wolf, another from a river. While they may have been scattered across Siberia, they all had one thing in common – the scientists used live single-cell amoeba cultures and found that the viruses still had the potential to be infectious pathogens. Have we answered the “What could possibly go wrong?” question yet?
"The situation would be much more disastrous in the case of plant, animal, or human diseases caused by the revival of an ancient unknown virus. It is therefore legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by the thawing of ancient permafrost layers."
Ponder? They’ve already demonstrated that these zombie viruses are being exposed to the thawing warmth of the Sun all over the Northern Hemisphere and have undoubtedly revived outside of the confines of a ‘secure’ laboratory. That means they could be alive and on the move – floating in rivers and looking for hosts to attach themselves to. Science Alert points out more of the obvious – the thirteen zombie viruses in the study were unknown … which means the majority of those still frozen are probably also unknown. That means we won’t e able to recognize them, nor will we have vaccines or other tools to deal with them. And, if they have been frozen for upwards of hundreds of thousand of years, modern science may not necessarily apply to them. At least these are giant viruses. As Virologist Eric Delwart from the University of California, San Francisco, who was not part of the study, reveals in New Scientist, size is not important when it comes to these ancient viruses.
"If the authors are indeed isolating live viruses from ancient permafrost, it is likely that the even smaller, simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for eons."
It is time to stop asking what could possibly go wrong and start dealing with what already HAS gone wrong. Global News reports that the thawing of ancient anthrax in 2016 in Siberia killed a child and hospitalized dozens of people – the anthrax was in the thawed carcass of a deer which had died decades ago. At least the cause and the disease was recent enough to be recognizable – 50,000-year-old diseases may not be. And this case points out another issue – 2,300 deer also died from anthrax. A zombie virus could kill or infect animals in Siberia, but not pass over to humans until the meat or fur is taken elsewhere.
If you haven’t figured out what could possibly go wrong on your own, the study authors were ’kind’ enough to do it for you:
“As unfortunately well documented by recent (and ongoing) pandemics, each new virus, even related to known families, almost always requires the development of highly specific medical responses, such as new antivirals or vaccines. There is no equivalent to ‘broad spectrum antibiotics’ against viruses, because of the lack of universally conserved druggable processes across the different viral families. It is therefore legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by the thawing of ancient permafrost layers.”
There are no simple answers. The permafrost is already melting, climate change is continuing, and we’ve demonstrated that the world is far from prepared for pandemics.
We know what could posssibly go wrong ... can anything go right?