Thawing Permafrosts Are Reviving Viruses


Permafrost that has been untouched for thousands of years is being melted due to climate change. This could revive ancient viruses and bacteria that were buried deep in the permanently frozen subsoil. The latest discovery of an ancient virus was when French and Russian scientists investigated a 30,000 year old piece of Siberian permafrost.

In 2014, a group of scientists led by Jean-Michel Claverie discovered a new ‘giant virus’. ‘Giant viruses’ are referred to as bigger than average viruses. For example, Pithovirus sibercum is the biggest ‘giant virus’ ever found in permafrost. Measuring 1,500 nanometers across, this virus is ten times bigger than the HIV virus.

After Claverie and his team melted the frozen Pithovirus, they realized the virus was still infectious. Luckily, the virus’ targets are amoebae—a unicellular organism—and it is not a human threat. However, not all giant viruses are non-threatening to humans. Virologist Christelle Desnues, discovered that an 11-month-old boy was infected by another giant virus: Marseillevirus. The virus was found in his lymph nodes and they had to be surgically removed.

In the northern parts of Russia, rising temperatures have climbed by 0.43 Celsius over the last ten years. The thawing permafrost that covers most of Russia is a result of an uncommonly warm climate. Even cemeteries and animal burial grounds deep in Russia’s permafrost are starting to thaw. In August 2016, the Anthrax virus outbreak was blamed on Anthrax spores that were found in an infected reindeer carcass buried deep in the ice. Everyone in the reindeer herdsman community had to evacuate, and nearly 2,300 reindeer were eradicated because of the outbreak. Scientists say that Anthrax may not be the only infectious virus under the ice.

Even though the threat of exposed diseases is real, some scientists believe that the threat is overstated. The thought of dangerous viruses in melting ice actually affecting human health “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point,” said virologist Curtis Suttle. “I would be much more concerned about the hundreds of millions of people who will be displaced by rising sea levels.”

[Source: World Economic Forum]

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