The hunt for 'zombie' viruses: How climate change could unleash infectious diseases 'frozen in permafrost'
Scientists known for their expertise on climate change have been warning that extreme weather events are becoming more common, from flooding and hurricanes to droughts and heatwaves. California has long been known for droughts, and Florida has long been associated with hurricanes. But according to scientists, climate change is making such events more severe and more common.
Climate scientists have also warned about permafrost melting in the Arctic. And according to reporting in CNN, that could affect viruses as well as "chemical and radioactive waste."
CNN reporter Katie Hunt, in an article published on March 8, explains, "Warmer temperatures in the Arctic are thawing the region's permafrost — a frozen layer of soil beneath the ground — and potentially stirring viruses that, after lying dormant for tens of thousands of years, could endanger animal and human health. While a pandemic unleashed by a disease from the distant past sounds like the plot of a sci-fi movie, scientists warn that the risks, though low, are underappreciated. Chemical and radioactive waste that dates back to the Cold War, which has the potential to harm wildlife and disrupt ecosystems, may also be released during thaws."
Hunt notes that Jean-Michel Claverie of the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in Marseille, France, has been researching "viruses frozen in permafrost" and searching for what he calls "zombie" viruses.
"In 2014, (Claverie) managed to revive a virus he and his team isolated from the permafrost, making it infectious for the first time in 30,000 years by inserting it into cultured cells," Hunt reports. "For safety, he’d chosen to study a virus that could only target single-celled amoebas, not animals or humans. He repeated the feat in 2015, isolating a different virus type that also targeted amoebas. And in his latest research, published February 18 in the journal Viruses, Claverie and his team isolated several strains of ancient virus from multiple samples of permafrost taken from seven different places across Siberia and showed they could each infect cultured amoeba cells."
The CNN reporter notes that "traces of viruses and bacteria that can infect humans have been found preserved in permafrost."
Birgitta Evengård, a microbiology professor at Sweden's Umea University, told CNN, "You must remember our immune defense has been developed in close contact with microbiological surroundings. If there is a virus hidden in the permafrost that we have not been in contact with for thousands of years, it might be that our immune defense is not sufficient. It is correct to have respect for the situation and be proactive and not just reactive."
Read CNN's full report at this link.
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