For centuries, scientists and environmental activists have warned us about the threats of climate change, citing increasing temperatures, droughts, wildfires, and of course, melting ice caps. Now, as a result of the rising temperatures and global warming, a new wake-up call has emerged: the potential outbreak of pathogenic viruses akin to Covid-19.
Within these ice caps, organisms, bacteria, and viruses have been preserved and dormant since the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago. Scientists have dubbed the melting permafrost as the “Pandora’s Box” because its melting could possibly awaken and release a plethora of deadly diseases. And one certain strain of virus recently discovered in Siberia’s permafrost has garnered the attention of the media: The Zombie Virus.
Where did this zombie virus come from?
Between late November and early December of 2022, the internet was buzzing with rumours of the potential revival of a zombie virus. According to reports, Russian scientists are working to resurrect zombie viruses from the recovered remains of mammals, including woolly mammoths from Siberia, Russia, roughly 10,000 years ago.
However, a team of European researchers from France, Germany, and Russia claimed to have already resurrected a Siberian ‘zombie virus’ that had been preserved inside a lakebed for more than 48,500 years. The European scientists recovered a total of 13 viruses from seven samples retrieved from the Siberian permafrost.
As a result, scientists dubbed these frozen infections the “Zombie Virus,” referring to the resurrection of the virus itself rather than its effects of resurrecting the dead, as some may imagine.
Is the zombie virus a threat?
While the viruses were found to still be infectious, virologist Paulo Verardi stated that the perceived risk of pandemics unleashed from Siberian poses no real threat to public health as the viruses can only infect a specific type of amoebas called ‘acanthamoeba’.
In a 2019 research article, Clyde Schultz, a biology professor at the University of Calgary in Albania, Canada, noted that these viruses are not known to infect humans.
According to researchers, most viruses that survive the deep freeze for thousands of years tend to not be considered coronaviruses or contagious viruses that could cause pandemics.
But while the ‘zombie virus’ studied is not a cause for concern at the moment, experts have also commented on the fact that other viruses trapped in the permafrost should be monitored as they could be contagious to humans and animals.
In an interview with VERIFY, Paulo Verardi warned that we should be “aware and prepared” for potential viruses. He also mentioned the possibility of some eradicated diseases resurfacing due to melting permafrost. For instance, the virus that causes smallpox has the genetic structure to endure freezing temperatures, so it could be preserved in the remains of people who succumbed to the virus.
“The smallpox virus, like these amoeba viruses, is very stable and therefore, more likely to be revived. Most other viruses are easily degraded and inactivated over time,” stated Verardi.
The warming permafrost has already been accused to be the source of an outbreak of infectious diseases before. In 2016, NPR reported that the melting permafrost in northern Siberia prompted an anthrax epidemic in a remote Siberian village. The outbreak was traced back to a thawed 75 year old deer carcass that had been infected with anthrax, which was suspected to have sparked an outbreak that hospitalized 96 people and killed 2,000 reindeers.
The icy depths of the permafrost house a Pandora’s box of diseases just waiting to be exposed and released. So, while the ‘zombie virus’ is unlikely to trigger a worldwide zombie apocalypse, it does raise the concern of climate crisis as well as the question, what other unnoticed but catastrophic consequences are there?
Written by: Wen Li
Edited by: Caitlin